As the buzzer sounded, finalizing Grant’s upset victory over Westchester High in the City Section Division I boys’ basketball, the reactions on display were expected.
There was unabashed joy and hugging by the victors while going full “Aaron Donald” — pointing at their ring fingers as Rams star defensive end did at the end of the Super Bowl.
There was disbelief and distraught looks on the faces of the vanquished.
There were coaches exhaling in primal screams a season’s worth of punishing practices, wins and losses, and dodging injuries and COVID-19 shutdowns in hopes of having pushed the right buttons to get their team perched on this mountain top. And there were families gently elbowing others around them so they could get in just the right position for selfies of trophy shots with their sons and daughters.
Similar displays of emotions and salutations were exhibited at all the section finals last weekend, whether they were in the higher division games (Open, D-I and II) played at Roybal Learning Center, or the lower division games (III, IV and V) played at the home or designated site of the higher seeded team.
And the celebrations were genuine, warranted and civil (at least those witnessed by this reporter). Because all the winners were champions, no matter what level of division they were playing in.
But not all championships are equal. And there was something about Grant’s 53-48 victory over Westchester High of Los Angeles in the Division I final that felt different from the others.
Slaying a dragon with the kind of pedigree Westchester has certainly plays a part; the Comets (16-11) have won 15 City titles since 1991, and were the Open Division champion as recently as 2020. The Lancers (23-9) had never won a boys’ championship in the 75 years the City Section has been handing out trophies.
“I have a million emotions right now,” said Lancers senior guard Jeremiah Windham, who led all scorers with 20 points and whose made free throw with 1:39 to play in regulation gave Grant the lead for good.
“I’m so proud of my team. I’m so proud of everybody playing through it all. We didn’t think we would get here. But we worked every day and played hard. We had to stay resilient. I’m so proud of everybody.”
Added guard Byron Mendez, a junior, who had 16 points and whose crucial three-pointer eliminated Westchester’s largest lead, “We were locked in. We knew we had it, because we played as a team. We knew we weren’t going to lose.”
As Grant walked off the court a winner on Friday, Feb. 26, Coach Tarek Abdelsameia had much to feel proud about. The Lancers never looked overmatched against the Comets. Westchester didn’t take a lead in the game until the fourth quarter, and Grant didn’t panic when it happened. The Lancers instead responded in the manner they expected they would in the heat of the moment.
“We had played a lot of close games against good teams,” Abdelsameia said. “We felt [this kind of] environment at Birmingham and St. Francis. So this environment meant nothing to us.
“We just focused on what we needed to do. We just wanted to play hard, and the results would have been what the results would have been. We came here today to win a basketball game; and if the City championship was the result of it, so be it.”
But after having a couple of days to further reflect on the historic outcome, Abdelsameia embraced the historic achievement by his team while also reminding people that even though schools like Grant may not have all the financial and facilities advantages that charter and private schools might have (even though LAUSD is currently renovating Grant and other campuses through funding from state bonds approved by voters), it doesn’t mean it can’t compete and win.
“In the Valley, we have so many private [and charter] schools that offer smaller classes, and parents with kids who are athletes are drawn to that,” he said. “If I have a high-level basketball player, and a public school comes calling and Harvard-Westlake comes calling — and it’s financially affordable — you want the best for your kid. There’s a lot more with public schools you have to contend with; it’s learning how to fend for yourself a little more, there are more cultural and economic backgrounds all in same environment.
“At the same time, these are lessons not easily learned in private schools. I think public school kids sometimes come out a little more savvy for the real world. Not to say private school kids don’t know what’s going on. But public school kids have to deal with more, especially if they’re working and both parents may be working two jobs. They may have to be adults a little bit sooner than they want to be.”
This roster of players, Abdelsameia said, was a bit more “grown up.” Like many schools, public and private, the Lancers schedule and season was disrupted by the pandemic. But their focus never wavered. If they had to practice outside, they did so. If they were short-handed because of COVID protocols, they played who they had.
“We tried our best to keep everything as normal as possible,” Abdelsameia said.
And the players were never afraid to keep each other accountable. That included Windham, the team’s best player.
It’s a blueprint for success that would work anywhere, but especially at a school like Grant that’s used to having to work for everything it gets — including a championship.
“It’s about making sure the kids understand that everything is an opportunity,” Abdelsameia said. “All these situations are opportunities and you have to take advantage of them. Even if you fail, it doesn’t mean you’re not successful. You had an opportunity, you gave it your best shot, but if you didn’t accomplish the goal, another opportunity will materialize.
“If you work as hard as you can, eventually at some point it becomes an even playing field.”