A singular afternoon chat with a coach and several players will not give you a total look into what makes a program on the rise like the Birmingham Charter High’s boys’ basketball team.
But there are some fairly good hints.
Start with the numbers. The Patriots won 22 games last year, and are off to a 7-2 start going into their game today, Dec. 15, against Marshall High of Los Angeles. They’ve already secured tournament wins against Narbonne High of Harbor City, Westchester High of Los Angeles and West Valley league rival Taft — three teams they could see again in the City Section playoffs. The only losses are to Southern Section stalwarts Loyola High of Los Angeles and Santa Monica, also in tournament play, by a combined seven points.
But they’re not satisfied — especially since it is only December.
“The tournaments were alright,” said guard Devonaire Doutrive, 16, a junior. “But our goals are to win the City and state championships. It’s attainable.”
Now insert a level of maturity. Last year the Patriots won those 22 games as the collection of various transfers and outgoing seniors spent most of the season getting to know each other. This season’s core group has a much firmer grasp of their team identity.
“Last year we were still breaking into who we are as players,” said forward Mark Boland, 17, a senior. “This year through summer and fall leagues, we were able to find our strengths as a team and progress.”
Deschon Winston, 18, a guard who transferred here last year from El Camino Real, echoes the “improved chemistry” belief. “We are a championship contender team,” Winston declared.
Coach Nicholas Halic, who took over the program in 2012, is still cautious about throwing around the word “special” in describing the team. But it is this group of Patriots who fully embody his concepts of playing basketball, most notably playing at an uptempo pace.
“I wanted to play faster and I wanted to play aggressively,” said Halic, who played basketball at Birmingham and graduated from here in 2001. We had a few kids early who could do that, but we had a lot of injuries … that put our other players in positions that were out-of-position for them, and it was tough. But that was the number one thing I wanted to change; play faster, more aggressively. And I think we do that now.”
Halic has a flexible lineup ranging in size for 5-8 to 6-6. All can run and jump. He has a premiere talent in senior guard Devante Doutrive (22.2 points) — Devonaire’s older brother — who can score on and with anybody in City. But the talents of Devonaire (17.1 points), Winston (16.7 points) and Boland (8.0 points) keep opponents from defensively ganging up on Devonte.
The team’s mental capacity, of believing in and wanting to challenge the best Division I teams in City and the state is also aligned with its athletic ability.
“I think they’re ready for this now,” Halic said. “They play well against really good teams. They’re up for the challenge, but they stay pretty loose and relaxed. It doesn’t feel the ‘we have to win every game’ pressure. We just play the games in front of us.”
The early buzz Birmingham has created was even evident in the losses.
“People stepped it up against us because of the matchup,” Halic said. “Now we have to readjust to that. I think going forward, they’re ready to perform. And we have three really good players that can create for others. That makes it tough for people to figure out what we’re doing.
“If we play our style of basketball, the way we like to play, then we’re in good shape.”
The Patriots could become even deeper. Two other transfers — Erick Bushner and Jalen Bolden, both juniors — are about to be cleared. That makes Birmingham an even bigger threat to end the West Valley dominance Taft and El Camino Real have enjoyed for a decade and-a-half.
Especially when Birmingham can turn on its speed game.
“We may be a bit undersized, but we can play at a faster pace than anyone we’ve played,” Boland said.
“We’re better just knowing what each other’s strengths are,” added Winston. At the same time, he said, “everybody knows who we are now, and they’re scouting us.”
The only three boys’ basketball banners hanging up in the Patriots gym are for being a City runner-up. Halic and his players will momentarily let their minds drift to what it would mean to have a championship banner there.
But not for long.
Right now they will only worry about who is in front of them.
“I think we have a chance to be one of the better teams out here. But you don’t know until you play. And that’s still how I feel. You’ve got to play the games. No matter what the numbers are next to you, you’ve gotta play the games,” Halic said.
“If you come in with the attitude ‘we need to win this,’ you can put too much pressure on yourself. Doing it one game at a time will get you to the end eventually.”