Part II: The Magic
A Multi-part series based on the Mater Dei vs. Chino Hills basketball game.
One of the things I was most looking forward to was reuniting with an old friend and (really professional acquaintance) head coach of Mater Dei, Gary McKnight. It is my understanding that McKnight is the winningest coach of all time in CIF.( http://www.calhisports.com/2014/07/12/multi-sport-state-coaching-leaders/). He has coached at Mater Dei High School for better part of 30 years. He is known, honored and respected by all of those that are in CIF or Prep basketball. What a treat for me to receive a hearty handshake and to be greeted by name from coach McKnight.
Being there two hours early allowed me to see a lot of warm-up by both teams. This allows me to talk with both coaches and get a feel for the vibe. I had a chance to ask coach McKnight on a personal level if he would help me in comparing Lonzo Ball’s game to some of the athletes we have seen from his program in the past like: Katin Reinhardt, Xavier Johnson and Stanley Johnson because I’m always trying to improve my ability to learn and evaluate the game of basketball. Coach put it in perfect perspective for me in just a few words. ” That kid is the real deal”. With that I understood, but I don’t think anybody could anticipate what was about to happen.
The introductions were made. The Star Spangled Banner was sung by Chino Hills High School girls basketball star Janessa Thropay. Her singing was so on point and inspiring that the hair on the back of my neck stood up. The crowd had been squeezed into their seat as much as possible. The referee’s whistles blew. He tossed the ball straight up. The tip veered to the Mater Dei side of the floor where Lonzo Ball had set himself up. Within six seconds, two three point baskets were made and the score was 6-0 Chino Hills. If that wasn’t enough, Chino Hills would scored 12 points with 2:07 into the first quarter before Mater Dei had even crossed the top of the key on the opposite end of the floor. As coach McKnight would later tell a reporter, “After that my kids were just shell shocked.”
I’ve already committed to myself not to turn this into a numbers or analytical piece because there’s so much information already out there about this game. I just wanna tell you about the magic. Maybe because I have become so I accepting or comfortable of just how great Lonzo Ball and the other players on the team game. For example, not reacting when one of the Ball’s nets a 38-footer shot or slam dunks and alley oops. Which by the way happens multiple times in a game. I heard a great analogy today on a sports talk radio station that you can apply to to the Huskies. It’s similar to watching the Golden State Warriors right now because you become numb to the specialness of just what’s going on that we take for granted the uniqueness. In both teams, play is very similar. In fact, both play fluidly and are in constant motion all the time. Both team do not set or script plays, per say, for any one player. Both Coach Steve Kerr and Steve Baik let them have freedom to orchestrate the floor. Both have multiple players capable of taking control of a game at any point. Both teams play happens with such ease and smoothness.It’s not until you step back and think about what you saw that you realize it is so far beyond normal that it is not appreciated for its elevated level of excellence. Where Golden State has three standouts right now: Curry,Thompson and Green. Chino Hill’s has five: Lonzo(Zo), LiAngelo(Gello), LaMelo(Mello) Ball, Elizjah(Eli) Scott and Onyeka(O) Okongwu.
There were five GREAT performances going one at the same time on the same floor that night. You couldn’t deny what gift it was to be present. To be court side with no obstruction or distractions. To be able to see the eyes of the players. To see the flex of their muscles. To hear the squeak of their shoes. To feel like I was reacting to the movement as the defenders were. I’m going to have to be brutally honest and hope my words do not offend, but allow me to put into perspective my interpretation of the the performance that was in front of me.
I had always looked at LaMello Ball. The 14 year-old, five foot 10 freshman as the kid on the court. In some ways privilege to have his older brother’s their. But, that night…. He became a man. I watched him do things I had never seen anybody do at this level. Just a few feet from the table at about five o’clock, some ten feet from the three point line; Melo with great ease and grace passed the ball back and forth between his legs as you could feel his mind deciding what he was going to do to obliviate his defender. Then committing, he drives right. His defender retreats to thwart his advance. As quick as Melo lunged forward he pulls up and squares his shoulders and drains a three to the dismay of the still retreating defender. As an encore and Melo crosses mid court by about three to four feet, stops and nets another three. The moment that blew my mind was a perfectly executed NBA move. He again moved the ball back and forth between his leg at the top of the key. In front of him standing at the free throw line was six foot ten senior MJ Cage. Melo still with the ball walks him back about three feet. Then, Melo shifts the ball to his forehand and drives to the right, but spins 360 degrees to the left and slips under the extended right arm of MJ and completes the move to the net for two points. Eight players stood and watched the humiliation and are stunned. On cue 2200 plus fans erupted. That was just one of five unbelievable athletic performers that night on the floor for Chino Hills.
LiAngelo Ball a six foot six junior who does not suffer from the “middle kid syndrome” on the court. He wanted a second chance to prove something. He had come up short in the previous year’s competition against Mater Dei. He was going to leave the court that night a winner. Making sure that this was the year, this was the moment, this was the time. Gelo was going to make sure the Ball’s family would shine like no other night. Gelo led all scoring with 34 points, but that doesn’t tell the story. That does not tell everything about Gelo’s game. The great thing about Gello Ball is amongst all the stories that are told about the Ball phenomenon is the one that is rarely in the forefront is Gelo’s contribution. Oddly, when you look at the stats because he constantly leads all scoring. Gelo is willing to do whatever it takes. He is willing to mix it up down low or hang around the three point line like dropping five that night. His play has deflated some of the area’s best coaches defensive game plans. Dave Kleckner of Etiwanda told me, “I can hang with them for three quarters, but once Gelo drops his shoulder and drives to the net you just can’t stop him.” Gelo’s game is not a compliment to his brothers game, but stands on it’s own. If anything, it should be defined as a confirmation to his brothers’ game. What’s magical to watch with this game was the outlet Gelo provided. The option he provided when Lonzo brings the ball down. No, wait a more accurate description, “within the first ten feet,” Lonzo’s radar has already located and formulated the fast break long pass. It’s not just a pass, but by the first 10 feet time and time again the ball is being staged for a alley oop or a deep baseline three. When Zo does bring it to midcourt it is so fast that it’s like when you watch a normal game. Where maybe two or three times in a game that some team gets lucky enough to have a two on one break away and just before they get to the backboard, player one decides to to pass to player two or shoot. Well, this happens as the defenders struggles to run back to defend and are already beat by mid court. I want to stop and mention that I am not overstating my account of their play. It really happens like that all night long.
However, the Ball brothers were not the only ones on the floor that night. Eli Scott, probably had the best game I’ve ever seen him have. Eli was a transfer from Upland High School and had to sit out last year. Arguably, he is as vital as the Ball brothers on the floor this year. His willingness to be a blue collar worker and do whatever it takes shined as well on Friday. Dropping a three pointer (which is not his usual game) Eli with such ease from just outside the three point line aligned to the left of the basket in front of the student section of the Huskies enhance the moment. With one glance you could watch him rip a three point basket. In the same moment just over his shoulder was the student the body jumping to their feet and losing their minds. That was just one more gift of a moment.
The fifth member, Onyeka(O) Okongwu also had a wonderful night. I couldn’t overlook how great of an opportunity for a young 15 year-old freshman who got his world turned upside down in the summer of 2014 as he lost his mentor and best friend. His older brother Nnamdi tragically passes away in a skateboarding accident. His maturity and decision-making shined at times that night. Taking advantage of the commotion and weaving of the Mater Dei defense to get setup(yes that what it looked like) at the top of the key. O’s last two point contribution was the basket the put the Huskies into triple digits(a point I will get back to in a part III). Mater Dei could not at any point neglect one person on that floor. Chino Hill’s overwhelming offensive attack seemed incomprehensible to the Monarch’s defense which affected all play for Mater Dei that night. As in when Mater Dei would inbound the ball after a score. “From my perspective,” especially in the first quarter of the game. As the Monarchs’ guards would inbound the ball before they reached mid court, Chino Hills would have picked their pocket or forced a turnover to compound their frustrations. There is so much more I could talk about in describing the play that night. Even I must admit that it sounds so surreal. It’s like trying to tell someone why Casablanca is one of the best movies of all time. Is it Boggy or Rick’s Café American or Ingrid Bergman’s beauty? It’s all those things as well as it is all the things that were happening as I said “at the same time on the same floor…
Part III will post tomorrow and will conclude with talk about the coaches and my final thoughts!
That’s How I See It