The women file into the gym, most in their late 40s to early 60s and most Asian American, every one of them eager for tipoff.
It’s a Sunday morning at a high school in Huntington Beach, but these women have been playing basketball in gyms like this, on mornings like this, for decades.
Today, it’s the High Rollers against Forever Kidz. Both teams are part of the Orange Coast Sports Association, which sponsors a basketball league of mostly Japanese American women age 40 and older. They play today because they still love the game more than they hate the sprained ankles and floor burns that come with it.
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.
It had been seven, long minutes since Troy converted a bucket. So long, Warriors coach Roger Anderson joked on the sideline in the early December game against Legacy of South Gate: “We haven’t scored in oh, maybe, I don’t know, a month?”
Senior Kianna Smith – face stone cold, hair slicked back in her signature bun – caught the ball at the three-point line in the corner. Everyone knew: the 6-0 Cal commit was about go for the kill. “She can always get a shot off, whenever she wants,” Troy point guard Hope Kakihara said.
Smith paused with her dribble – getting a rise out of her defender – then exploded past. Running into a help defender, Smith shook free, floating to the rim for two points. “She makes moves look so effortless,” Anderson said. “But you know how hard what she’s doing is.”
Cal State Fullerton needed a bucket. The Titans swung the ball around the perimeter, trailing Portland State by three points in double overtime earlier this month. Freshman guard Jamal Smith waited on the wing — legs bent, palms open — ready to catch the ball.
Jamal’s father, John Smith, the Titans’ associate head coach, prepares the team for moments like this, often sharing a lesson he learned from his father, the late former NBA point guard Lucky Smith: You’ve got a carrot, an egg and a coffee bean. If you boil a big bowl of hot water, which represents adversity, and you put the carrot in there, it gets soft and mushy. You don’t want to be the carrot. If you put an egg in there, it gets stiff. You don’t want to be the egg. But when you put a coffee bean in there?
As practice wound down in early January, many of Jeremy Lamb’s teammates rested on the sideline with ice bags on their calves, thighs or feet. Others stretched. Some engaged in media interviews. But the fourth-year Hornets guard wanted to keep shooting until the team’s bus arrived, as Charlotte was in Westwood, Calif., preparing for a game against the Clippers the next day.
Catch. Shoot. Catch. Dribble. Shoot. Crossover pull-ups, long threes, deep twos, between the legs mid-range elbows, free throws — with each shot Lamb extended his arm, flicked his wrist and curled his fingertips over as if pulling a cookie out of a jar. The ball continued to glide through the net and Lamb didn’t seem to want to stop.
Khalia Lanier wouldn’t be denied. Flying around the court for USC — up 23-20 in the third set of a back-and-forth game against No. 8 UCLA last Saturday — the freshman outside hitter knew she needed to make a play.
Wearing her customary yellow headband, the 6-foot-2 Lanier rose up as if she had springs in her sneakers, and smacked the ball down with such grace that the kill was as sublime as it was powerful.
“Khalia walks on the court and she just allows everybody else to know that there’s a go-to player, that if we get in trouble, we can give her the ball and she will do it,” said USC coach Mick Haley, whose Trojans (18-13) eventually lost the five-set thriller.
Emanuel “Book” Richardson’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Why would you let Kemba Walker go to UConn? He’s too small. He’s never going to play.
Richardson, Walker’s former AAU coach with the New York Gauchos, had similar reservations. When he first heard Walker wanted to be a Husky, he laughed. UConn hadn’t even shown any interest and Walker was projected to be a mid-major player. “I don’t think you’re good enough to play there yet,” Richardson told the Rice High School point guard, prodding him to think more realistically about his future. “There’s not a lot of late bloomers that are six foot.”
But reality wasn’t a message the kid with sky-high dreams wanted to hear, even if scouting reports sent him back down to earth.