All Ball sports: Rafters to ring in Fisher Gym, UCLA salvages USC season, listen to LeBron

By Paul Teetor

Prep sports fans are about to enjoy an unprecedented all-you-can-watch buffet.

Or it could just be an all-you-can-read buffet, as the final rules on fan and media attendance are still being worked out.

Either way – fans or no fans, maybe only just immediate family with a limit of four — football, basketball, baseball and volleyball will all be played simultaneously over the next two months as local high schools rush to catch up on as much as they can of a full year without prep sports.

Throw in water polo, tennis, cross-country and a few other sports that are already underway and you have some idea of what is about to unfold in a compressed, pandemic-shortened season like no other in CIF history.

Closer to home in the Beach Cities, Mustang fans and Mira Costa alumni will finally get an answer to the $38 million question: who will play the first game in the long-awaited, much-anticipated debut of Fisher Gymnasium 2.0, Costa’s brand-new athletic complex. 

The reigning Bay League Champions boys basketball team will be able to start defending its title very soon – something that not so long ago looked unlikely. 

“It could start as early as two weeks from now,” an elated Mira Costa Head Coach Neal Perlmutter said Friday night. “We want to be the first ones to play in our beautiful new gym.”

Not so fast, Coach Neal. Mira Costa Girls basketball Coach John Lapham has the same goal.

Mira Costa’s boys and girls basketball coach Neal Perlmutte (left) and John Lapham are each hoping their teams will be the first to play in the school’s new $38 million Fisher Gym, completed last summer. The original Fisher Gym, completed in 1952, cost $413,785) Photos by Ray Vidal

“We should be in our unbelievably awesome new gym very soon,” an equally excited Lapham said Friday night. “And we’d like to play the first game ever played there.”

If the first game is a Bay League game and ladies-first protocol is followed – the girls varsity plays at 6, the boys follow at 7:30 – Lapham and his girls will get his wish and Perlmutter and his boys will have to settle for second place in the history books.

But if it’s a non-league game, then it could go either way. Typically, the boys and girls teams play their non-league games on different nights.

However it works out, both coaches said their players are excited about the sudden break in the bureaucratic log-jam that had shut down high school sports for the last 12 months, ever since the full force of the pandemic hit in mid-March 2020.

“Last week we went from hoping there would be a season – hope that wasn’t easy to maintain a lot of the time – to believing there that would be a season,” Lapham said.            

It took a lawsuit by a group of frustrated athlete parents, declining infection rates County-wide and State-wide, a series of rulings by local and state boards of health, and dogged persistence by high school athletic directors and coaches to make the athletic re-start finally happen after it seemed for so long that it would never happen, or at least not until school year 2021-22. 

The arcane details of how it all went down are too complex to go into here, but the bottom line is all that matters: the kids who have stuck with their athletic programs all through the seemingly-endless pandemic will finally get a chance to compete.

Forget about the physical benefits of all that competitive exercise. That’s a given. But consider the mental benefits after the psychological toll the pandemic has taken on students K-12.

“I was talking to a coach from Cypress last week,” Perlmutter said. “And he told me five kids from that school had committed suicide during the lockdown. It’s tragic.”                     

It’s been tough on coaches, too.

“I haven’t coached a basketball game in over a year,” Perlmutter said. “I expect I’ll be a bit rusty.”

Mira Costa’s boys and girls basketball coach Neal Perlmutte (left) and John Lapham are each hoping their teams will be the first to play in the school’s new $38 million Fisher Gym, completed last summer. The original Fisher Gym, completed in 1952, cost $413,785) Photos by Ray Vidal

Still, Perlmutter figures to have a great season in his third year at the helm of what had been an unhappy program for more than a decade, before he was hired in 2018 after leading West from its traditional spot at the bottom of the standings to a CIF title.

Not only did he guide the Mustangs to a Bay League title in only his second year, but he did it in a season when his team was forced to move around like a group of nomads with no place to call home. While waiting for the new athletic facility to be built, they played their home games in the tiny gym at Manhattan Beach Middle School, Redondo High the few times it was available, the charming old gym at El Segundo High and the new gym at the Wiseburn School in El Segundo.  

Now he has virtually the entire roster coming back from the team that won the school’s first Bay League title in 20 years and also broke a string of 14 consecutive losses to arch-rival Redondo.

Start with his two freshman stars turned sophomore veterans, do-it-all wing Will Householter and dead-eye shooting guard Dylan Black. They led the team in dedication and persistence over the last year, coming to every practice Perlmutter scheduled in the parking lot at Manhattan Beach Middle School and later at Pennekamp Elementary School.

“They’ve both grown to around 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds,” he said. “They’re a lot more physically developed than they were last year. And they handle the ball a lot better.”

Senior guard Alex Cortez, a lock-down defender and reliable 3-point shooter, projects to give them help in the backcourt.

Perlmutter also has a posse of big men coming back to handle the rebounding duties, including 6-foot-6 banger Brennan Morgan and hustling 6-foot-3 forward Jesse Waller.

“They’re both really improved. They had a lot of time to practice and really devoted themselves to their games,” he said.

The wild card for the Mustangs this year figures to be Luke Sevier, a 6-foot-5 lefty who started out in the Mira Costa program three years ago, transferred to Ambassador, and then transferred back to Costa last year but had to sit out the season because of transfer rules.

“He can play all five positions,” Perlmutter said. “I feel like we’re coming in as a cohesive unit already because of everything we went through last year. So Luke can be the difference between us being a good team and being a very good team.”

Costa hopes to play as many as 20 games in a season that probably will not include CIF playoffs because of time limits and restrictions on playing teams from other counties with different health and safety protocols. But at this point, after what most schools and their athletes have been through, playing any games at all will suffice.

“Playing 20 games would be amazing,” Perlmutter said. “We’ve gotten this far because we have a progressive administration that is excited about this re-start and understands how important sports are to the kids.”

Lapham also has a strong returning group from the girls team that finished third in the Bay League last year.

It starts with sophomore Maile Nakaji, who was their best player as a freshman and projects as a team leader this season with a year of experience under her sneakers. “She’s a great player and a great kid,” Lapham said. “She’ll play shooting guard for us this year. We’re trying to get her as many shots as we can.”

Backing her up is junior Cara Susilo, who made the all-Bay-League team the last two years. Then there are three seniors – Mia Chuang, Courtney Lo and Michelle Toyooka – who will all see plenty of minutes in the backcourt. “They give us the depth to run and press all over the court,” Lapham said.

Up front he has three players who saw big minutes last season in juniors Winslow Smith, a 6-footer who shoots like Stephen Curry, and board banger Hannah Gedion as well as junior Bella Blum, a prolific scorer.

“Two of them will start and the other will play a lot of minutes,” he said. “We’re not sure who’s going to start just yet.”

In addition to all that returning firepower, Lapham said he has two freshmen in Hayden Lin and JuJu O’Brien who are so good that he’s going to have to find them some minutes as well.

“We’re really excited about our team this season,” he said, “but we’re even more excited about just getting to play games again after all this time.”

Maile Nakaji was the Mustangs best player last year, as a freshman. This year, she’s expected to return as the team leader. Photo by Ray Vidal

Costa Athletic Director Glenn Marx said the school’s football team will play its first game the night of Saturday, March 13, against St. Francis, at home. The team hopes to play at least six games, he said.

As for basketball and volleyball, he said those schedules are still being worked out but that the target date to start is the weekend of March 19 and 20. Those discussions have been very productive, he said, because all the various coaches are willing to sacrifice and compromise just to get their players in a game.

“So far we’ve had a lot of coaches’ meetings to talk about field use and gym use and being flexible,” Marx said. “If Congress was like this, we’d all be in a better place.” 

 

USC’s prayer is answered

The USC men’s basketball team trailed UCLA for 39 minutes and 58.6 seconds of Saturday afternoon’s PAC 12 showdown that ended the regular season for both teams.

But it didn’t matter.

Trailing by two points with 1.4 seconds left, USC guard Tahj Eaddy launched a falling-out-of-bounds corner 3-pointer that stunned and silenced the few spectators in Pauley Pavilion as it nestled through the net. The miracle hoop set off a raucous dogpile around Eaddy and USC Head Coach Andy Enfield, who desperately needed this against-all-odds 64-63 victory to salvage a season that had gone from dream to nightmare in the space of two weeks.

Indeed, that was true for both the elated Trojans and the crest-fallen Bruins, who had this game in hand all the way – their biggest lead was 13 points – until the last shot.

But that collapse was a mirror image of the season for both teams, who ran first and second in the PAC 12 all season – until the very last week.

First it was USC who ran out in front during December and January while UCLA stayed within challenging distance in second place. At one point in the season USC won 9 out of 10 games behind its very talented freshman, 6-foot-11 Evan Mobley and his older brother, Isiah Mobley, less talented but equally tall.

But when the Trojans lost three out of four games late in the regular season, that allowed the Bruins to slip back into first place. At that point it looked like UCLA would have their first league champion team since the Coach Ben Howland powerhouses more than a decade ago.

But the Bruins followed the Trojans cue with a late-season swoon of their own that allowed USC to crawl back into first place.

Amazingly, they both blew their last couple of games with late-game collapses, allowing dark-horse Oregon, which had been a distant third all season, to pull into first place. So going into the final weekend of the season, the winner of the USC-UCLA rivalry game Saturday night would win the PAC-12 outright IF and only if Oregon State was able to beat Oregon Sunday afternoon.

Somehow it seemed to be poetic justice when Oregon beat Oregon State 80-67 late Sunday, thereby denying the Trojans their first PAC-12 title in seemingly forever. After such a run of choking in the face of glorious opportunity by both local teams, it would have offended the basketball gods if either of them had backed into the regular season title by virtue of Oregon losing a game it was heavily favored to win.

That didn’t happen, so now all eyes turn toward the PAC-12 Tournament that starts later this week and then to the NCAA tournament later this month. Both the Bruins and the Trojans will get NCAA invites based on their early and mid-season heroics, but their late-season collapses do not bode well for a deep March Madness run.  

USC is going to have to hope that Mobley, who is sure to be a top-3 pick in the NBA draft next June, gets more aggressive if they are to have any chance at a run to the regional semifinals or finals.

The guy is so tall, so agile and so skilled – great handle, smooth shooter, smart passer, hard-working defender – that he’s the kind of effortless player who can frustrate fans and coaches even when he scores 20 points and grabs 10 rebounds.

In Saturday’s game – the most important one the Trojans played all year – he took only 10 shots and hit six for 13 points and 11 rebounds. He’s so unselfish that he never forces a shot and always looks for his teammates first. Indeed, in one game earlier this season, he did not take a single shot.

That’s not unselfish. That’s crazy for a team’s best player.

Mobley is going to learn a brutal lesson when he enters the NBA next year: pro defenses don’t give you anything.

You have to take it.

 

Listen to LeBron

The NBA staged an All-Star Game Sunday afternoon that had zero fans in the house and generated zero excitement – except among the announcers, who are paid to sound excited, and the public health officials worried sick about it becoming a super-spreader event after the NBA fans leave Atlanta.

LeBron James is not the kind of person to say it, so we’ll say it for him: He told you so.

He told you straight up that holding the game this year in the midst of a pandemic-shortened season was a bad idea, but you didn’t listen to him. He told the league the players were exhausted and had no desire to gather in one Covid-19 hot spot.            

But instead, the league listened to the TV dollars flowing in from Turner Sports for the broadcast rights.

And just as LeBron had feared, the All-Star weekend got off to an ominous start when Philadelphia’s two all-stars, MVP candidate Joel Embid and his sidekick Ben Simmons, had to quarantine themselves after they both got haircuts from a barber who later tested positive.

Most All-Star games are a waste of time, little more than excuses for the stars to get together to party for 48 hours. This one was a colossal waste of time as the players were unable to leave their hotel rooms except for the game.

The game itself was a joke: Too much hot dogging, too much no-defense, too many guys chucking up shots from 35 and even 45 feet, too much indifference. LeBron was so dis-interested he played only 13 minutes, even though his team won.

One of the traditional high-lights, the dunk contest, was won by someone named Anfernee Simons, who allegedly plays for Portland but otherwise is an NBA non-entity. No matter how much Shaq, Kenny and Charles yelled and screamed and debated various dunks, it all sounded old and tired, like a bad re-run. 

Off the court, Commissioner Adam Silver shot down Kyrie Irving’s idea about changing the NBA logo from Jerry West to Kobe Bryant. As All Ball pointed out last week, it makes no sense to cancel West just to memorialize Kobe’s greatness. Indeed, the NBA has already named the All-Star game MVP trophy after Kobe, who won it himself four times. And there will be plenty of other opportunities to honor Kobe.

The only real news from the weekend was bad news for the Lakers: Blake Griffin is going to the Brooklyn Nets, who already have too many stars in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Granted, this is not the same Griffin who made his rep by jumping over a car in the dunk contest a decade ago, or the guy who teamed up with Chris Paul to drag the Clippers within a couple of missed 3-pointers of the Western Conference Finals.

But he’s still a very good player who can score on all three levels – at the basket, mid-range and 3-point land – and he’ll do nothing but help Brooklyn which is now the heavy favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference and make it to the Finals. The Lakers will most likely be waiting for them, assuming Anthony Davis comes back from the injured list at 100 percent at least a few weeks before the playoffs start.

As for the All-Star game, the league’s lesson is simple and timeless: when LeBron speaks, Listen!

It’s for your own good.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com.

Follow: @paulteetor

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Written by: Paul Teetor

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