March 1, 2016, published on SI.com
Two hours before a recent game between fierce Los Angeles high school rivals Westchester High and Fairfax High, the gym is packed. The Fairfax band plays alongside a D.J., while fans jockey for seats on the wooden bleachers to catch the freshman and junior varsity games. “If you don’t get there early, you don’t get in,” Westchester coach Ed Azzam says.
Red banners displaying Fairfax’s City and state championships remind all what’s at stake for the Jan. 22 Western League matchup between the two schools separated 13 miles apart. It’s a rivalry that runs deep. “My uncle told me that if I lost to Fairfax—this is my freshman year when I played JV—you gotta find your own way home,” says USC associate head coach Tony Bland, an All-America on Westchester’s 1998 state championship squad.
The varsity game starts and players claw for baskets, diving after every loose ball. A block or a breakaway dunk empowers half of the gym to shout “FAX HOUSE!” The other half screams “WESSST!” Cheerleaders compete for the best flips. R&B star Chris Brown is courtside, six seats down from Flea, co-founder of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a 1980 Fairfax graduate who rarely misses a game against Westchester.
“I get really emotionally attached to the thing,” says Flea, whose real name is Michael Balzary. He met the Chili’s lead singer, Anthony Kiedis, on a rainy day in P.E. class in this gym.
Westchester floor general Terrell Waiters nails a jump shot with 1:08 left and a three with 20 seconds remaining to give the Comets a 53–47 victory, avenging last season’s loss to Fairfax for the City Open Division championship. “If you win that game, it’s like you’re king of the city,” says Josh Shipp, a former Fairfax and UCLA standout. “You walk around with your chest a little higher, your head a little higher.”
Azzam and Fairfax coach Harvey Kitani couldn’t have known that they would build one of California’s great high school rivalries when they played Little League together in Gardena, Calif., and both attended Peary Middle School, Gardena High and Long Beach State. When Azzam took the Westchester job in 1979 and Kitani took the Fairfax position in ’81, L.A. high school basketball was flooded with talent at Crenshaw High, Manual Arts, Fremont and Dorsey. Azzam, who surpassed Crenshaw’s Willie West in December for all-time L.A. City-Section boys’ basketball wins (821), inherited a group that aspired to win one more game than the school’s football team (they hadn’t won a game in about three years, Azzam said). Kitani (755 career wins) inherited a program that had won City titles in ’78 and ’79 but couldn’t afford warmup gear. He would drive six players in his Honda to a store on Wilshire and Fairfax that sold two pairs of knockoff brand sneakers for $30. Soon, though, Westchester reached the City finals in ’84 and Fairfax claimed City titles in ’85 and ’87.
Derrick Mills, a Fairfax assistant coach from 1985-2006, remembers the birth of the rivalry: the 1988 City playoffs between sixth-seed Westchester and fourth-seed Fairfax. The Comets’ Renaud Gordon, Booker Waugh and Scott Crawford hounded Fairfax star Chris Mills (Derrick’s brother) with a box-and-one defense. “They took him out of his comfort zone. They wanted the other kids to beat them,” says Derrick, who played for Fairfax before transferring to Westchester. Chris Mills scored 18 points, but Westchester won, 45–42.
Over the next few decades the two schools morphed into local and national powers, oozing with future Division I and NBA talent, including Fairfax’s Sean Higgins (Michigan), Evan Burns (San Diego State), Craig Smith (Boston College) and Solomon Hill (Arizona and Indiana Pacers), as well as Westchester’s Trevor Ariza (UCLA and Houston Rockets), Amir Johnson (Boston Celtics) and Hassan Adams (Arizona).
Mutual dislike—and respect—flows between the two teams, as they often face each other four times: twice in league play, once in City playoffs and once in state playoffs. “For 28 years I’ve battled those guys,” says Westchester assistant coach DeWitt Cotton, a member of the Comets’ ’84 City finals team. “It was just handed down from each group: That’s one team you don’t lose to.”
Fairfax assistant coach Jamal Hartwell Sr., a member of the Lions’ 1987 City-title team, spotted Ariza’s shoes during pregame warmups in 2002: white all-around with a red line slashed through “Fairfax.” “At the time I thought, ‘You know what? They really don’t like us,'” says Hartwell Sr., laughing. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘The feelings are mutual.'”
Players crave bragging rights, as many grow up and play AAU together. In the summer of 2000, Fairfax’s Smith sat in a van with his AAU team, composed mostly of Westchester players who had just won the City title. Aaliyah’s “Try Again” blasted on the radio: If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again. “Some of the Westchester players turned it into their own words: ‘If you don’t win City, try again,'” Smith says. “That always motivated me.”
In most matchups, the teams usually go back and forth from the opening tip. Games often turn on a final possession, as in the 2009 regional semifinals when Westchester’s Dwayne Polee II took off from the three-point line and nailed a runner with four seconds left to give the Comets a 55–54 victory. “It took everything out of us,” says Jordan Weathers, a former Fairfax and Norfolk State guard. “It was like, ‘It’s over. It’s over.’ It still hurts to this day.”
No lead is safe, as neither team can stomach leaving empty handed. In 2003, the Lions rallied from a 19-point second-quarter deficit behind Kevin Bell’s 21 points to dethrone defending state champ Westchester, 58–55, in front of 1,250 fans. “In L.A. you don’t see that [kind of rivalry] very often at any level. The passion’s not there,” Azzam says. “Even USC, UCLA, it’s a big crowd, but the intensity, the personal nature of the game, isn’t there.”
The body heat from nearly 2,000 fans caused Fairfax’s gym walls and floor to sweat in 2002. “They stopped the game for a little bit to try to wipe it down,” says Keith Everage, who helped Westchester win state that year. “I remember falling a few times.” The crowd exploded in ’05 after Fairfax’s Chace Stanback flushed a one-handed dunk over a Westchester player. “He ended up getting a technical he was screaming so loud,” says Jerren Shipp, former Fairfax and Arizona State standout.
Marcus Johnson jumped higher than ever before in layup lines, excitement bursting within him for his first rivalry game as a freshman for Westchester in 2002. “There’s something about that small gym just being packed, the walls sweating and every bucket meaning so much,” says Johnson, who played for Connecticut and USC. “There’s no experience like that. Nothing comes close.”
Azzam and Kitani still teach fundamentals like pivoting with proper feet and boxing out. They instill discipline through rigorous conditioning and don’t tolerate showboating, attitude or poor grades. “What’s sustained [the rivalry] all these years is the coaches. Coach Azzam and coach Kitani are basketball legends,” says former USC guard Brandon Granville, who helped Westchester win a state title in 1998. “You couldn’t take any shortcuts. You had to work hard. You had to do things a certain way or else you didn’t play.”
Both coaches stress earning a college degree, not just playing college ball. They ask about players’ families and troubles outside of basketball. David Blu, also on Westchester’s 1998 state team, dealt with the death of his mother during his freshman season. The team became his escape. “The gym was open during lunchtime and we’d go in there and Azzam was playing five-on-five with the guys,” says Blu, who played at USC and overseas. “I could always talk to him … He was always there for me.”
That’s why many alums send their sons to play for their former coaches, such as Jamal Hartwell Sr., whose son Jamal Hartwell II now plays for Fairfax. “We’re educators and we just happen to be basketball coaches,” says Kitani. “My thing has always been: What would I want for my own boys? I have two sons. If they were at school and part of my program, what would I want their day to be like?”
The final showdown between the two teams before City playoffs was Feb. 12 with a Western League title at stake. “Knowing you have to work for it, it’s not being given to you, it just makes you more hungry and cherish the rivalry,” says Fairfax senior Donald Gipson, who has committed to Loyola Marymount.
Fans squish like sardines on Westchester’s red bleachers, close enough to read the “Demolish Fairfax” sign along the wall; to hear slaps from hard fouls; to feel the thump from Westchester’s cheerleaders’ sneakers hitting the floor while chanting “MISS IT BOY, MISSSSSS IT!” on free throws. The Comets start off cold and Fairfax leads by 12 at the break. Westchester fights to cut the deficit to two by the end of the third quarter.
Fairfax’s Ethan Anderson sinks a free throw with 1.9 seconds left to put the Lions up by three. Dozens of heartbroken Westchester fans leave the building, unwilling to hear the final buzzer, as Anderson drains the second to give Fairfax the 47–43 win. But those fans will return, as they always do, season after season.
“It’s like your first love/hate relationship,” Craig Smith says. “That was something that mattered at the end of the day, because you knew, at the end of the season, who was going to be alive. And you know what they’re about, and they know what you’re about, and it’s always going to be a dogfight.”