There are plenty of talented boys’ basketball teams throughout the San Fernando Valley.
Not exactly breaking news.
One of them is North Hollywood.
That might come as a surprise to those who aren’t paying attention.
It’s true the Huskies haven’t been a howling success the past few seasons. Their last league championships dates back to the 2007-08, when they were still part of the Sunset Six, and 2008-09 season when they moved into the East Valley. They haven’t had a record over .500 since, a stretch of six years.
But that doesn’t appear now to be a problem. North Hollywood was 15-9, 6-0 in league and riding a 12-game winning streak going into their Jan. 27 game against Arleta (results were unavailable at press time). The last loss was Dec. 29 to Bradshaw Christian of Sacramento at a holiday tournament in Palm Springs.
What exactly has North Hollywood figured out? The answer is simple, yet distinct: build a core of unselfish role players around two very good ones — although one is currently injured — and convince them all to play every game with heart and conviction.
That is the methodology employed by Coach Jose Fernandez and staff. And the Huskies have to be viewed as a contender for the East Valley along with Grant — and perhaps more when the City Section Division playoffs begin in late February.
Fernandez, whose previous coaching stops include Arleta and Sun Valley, doesn’t want the team or himself to look too far down the road. He probably doesn’t let them look down the block. North Hollywood’s success this season has been built one game at a time; there’s no reason to alter the formula.
“What we’ve brought in was a very old-school approach to the sport, in terms of the way we approach training and lifestyle,” Fernandez said. “It’s so much more than just basketball…it’s like the way we played in the 1970s; the excitement of game day, of wearing your letterman’s jacket, shirt-and-tie, the morning training and conditioning. And providing them the kind of competition that makes you better.”
In the beginning there might have been too much very good competition. Or the Huskies, who lost nine of their first 12 games, had to realize they could do more than just wear uniforms.
“When we began, and were in the mindset of developing chemistry, we expected a growing experience,” Fernandez said. “But after losing to some teams we felt we should have beaten, we were underachieving.”
The epiphany for the players came after that loss to Bradshaw Christian.
“We weren’t playing angry enough,” said senior forward Garrett Ashby, 17. “We weren’t playing like we actually wanted to win, as I think we are now. It wasn’t a lack of talent. Obviously there were some great teams in that [Palm Springs] tournament like Damien High in our first game. But there were a couple of other teams we could have beaten.”
“It was frustrating back in December,” added guard Daniel Kawashima, 17, a senior. “I was thinking this team could be excellent, and we were losing games we should have won. But now I think we can win….we have to keep doing what we’re doing, and that’s playing hard.”
Ashby and Kawashima embody the “selfless soldier” persona that has the Huskies currently thriving. They get their points but don’t obsess about them, and are willing to grind games out by playing defense or keeping the flow and tempo of the game to NoHo’s liking.
The Huskies do have their stars. One, however, is sidelined by an injury. Forward Amani Daniel, 18, a senior who is the team’s leading rebounder and second leading scorer, hurt his right knee in practice a couple of weeks ago and has not returned.
He is determined to get back — “there’s no timetable but I don’t need surgery,” he said — and be part of the Huskies’ push toward the playoffs. Daniel, who came to California this academic year from Orlando, Fla., feels he owes the team after being warmly accepted by his new teammates.
“These guys have an open-door policy; anybody could come in as long they were willing to work and put in the time,” Daniel said. “Everybody’s accepting. I have a lot of support around here.”
The other North Hollywood star, Sean Fernandez, is luminous. Sean, 18, a senior, has been carrying the scoring load for the Huskies, averaging just under 30 points per game. He’s been held under 20 points only twice, and scored 40 or more points four times.
He is a dazzling dribbler with either hand, and has the agility to knife through double- and triple-teams and drive to the basket seemingly at will. Descriptive nicknames like “Ghost,” “Smoke” or “Flash” don’t really do Sean justice.
“The kid is legit,” marveled an opposing coach after watching Sean help beat his team. “I think it’s his overall court sense. He handles the ball well, shoots from range, and can drive to the basket. But it’s his court sense; he sees things before other people see things.
“He’s very good at anticipating things, and knowing where his teammates should be. There are other kids on that team who can play, but when it’s a tough situation, he kinda shines. The ball is in his hands a lot, and I don’t know if you can take it out or prevent the ball from getting into his hands.”
Sean is also Fernandez’ son. And that creates its own burden, especially when he has the license to do whatever he feels he can on the court to win the game. The line he must walk to avoid internal jealousies and complaints from those outside the team is finer than a spider’s web. But he’s not afraid of losing his balance.
“I think it’s harder for the father coaching the son,” Sean said. “He’s taking more of the risk by putting his son on the team. If I mess up, and he doesn’t take me out, he get’s more of the blame because I’m the kid playing for his dad.
“We butt heads here and there. He’s my dad, but in the end he’s also my coach and I’m the player. We both respect each other in that situation. When we get home, he’s my dad. We’re able to separate the two.”
For his part, Fernandez makes it clear he can’t imagine competing without Sean.
“I address the ‘elephant in the room’ every parent meeting,” the coach said. “And I let the boys know there will be people happy with their roles and people unhappy, and they will say it is because of my son.
“But I tell people that Sean has been one of best players in Los Angeles from ninth grade on. That I didn’t bring him here to North Hollywood because of being my son, but that I wanted to win. That I was coaching 10 years before he was born and will coach until they kick me out. He has always given me my best chance of winning. And Sean is always willing to prove himself.”
There are still two meetings with Grant that will probably decide the league championship. And then there are the playoffs. So there is still more to the Huskies’ 2015-16 season to unveil.
The rest of us will have to be like the team itself, and play it one game at a time.