Adam Zuckerman wasn't sure what to expect Monday when he walked into his first-period economics class at Birmingham High. Two days earlier, Zuckerman had taken part in a dramatic home-court victory over Los Angeles in the semifinals of the City 3-A basketball playoffs. The win put Birmingham (22-2) into the championship game against Granada Hills (19-4) tonight at 7:30 at the Sports Arena.
Birmingham students and faculty had never seen their team qualify for a City basketball championship game. It took Zuckerman about 30 seconds to measure the level of enthusiasm on campus.
After the tardy bell rang, an announcement blared over the school's public address system and set the tone for a week of festivities honoring the Birmingham basketball team.
"Congratulations to our boys basketball team," said the P.A. announcer. "You guys did a great job and now we're going to the Sports Arena. Good luck on Friday and we'll make another announcement when tickets go on sale."
Other students in his economics class cheered and slapped the senior point guard on the back. Zuckerman was shocked. He couldn't remember the last time the school's P.A. system was used for an athletic announcement.
"Chills went through my body," Zuckerman said. "It was the greatest feeling in the world."
It has been 33 years since Birmingham High opened its doors. The school has won City championships in baseball, football and swimming, but basketball stayed out of the spotlight.
But this season, Birmingham ignored preseason newspaper predictions of a third-place finish in the Northwest Valley League and won its first league title since 1961.
The team's success has helped unite teachers and students on campus, Birmingham Coach Jeff Halpern said. "A lot of times on a large campus you don't always get a chance to meet all of the faculty, that's just way things are," Halpern said. "But some teachers have come up to me and congratulated me.
"The positive aspect of all this is having people coming together and pulling for a common cause instead of everyone saying, 'Oh God, I have to go to school again.' It's a real good atmosphere of people wanting to see something that hasn't happened. But even if it doesn't, I guess their feeling is that we've done something that nobody expected when the season started."
Birmingham already has supplied its supporters with a series of dramatic playoff games at home. In the first postseason game, Zuckerman made two free throws with four seconds remaining in overtime to give the Braves a 59-57 win over Venice. Birmingham put together a 20-point fourth quarter and beat University in the quarterfinals, 56-48.
The Braves then got a 32-point effort from Ennerea Maxwell, who made two free throws with 12 seconds left to seal Birmingham's 58-56 victory over Los Angeles in the semifinals.
The victory touched off a week of pep rallies and posters in the school halls, and a commemorative T-shirt went on sale Wednesday.
Louis Ramirez, Birmingham's athletic director who has taught at the school since 1954, says Halpern's squad has recaptured some of the old excitement of the early years.
"It reminds me of the golden age of Birmingham in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s when we would pack the basketball gym whether we were winning or not," Ramirez said. "Back then, Friday night was high school and everybody was there. The win last Friday brought back a lot of memories."
The crowd at Friday's semifinal was so large, fans had to be turned away at the door.
"There were certainly more people here than the capacity of our gym," Halpern said. "We were getting ready to go back on the court at halftime and people were sticking money through the door to try and get us to open the side door for them."
Birmingham fans may not have any problem finding a seat tonight in the Sports Arena, but the Braves players may have difficulty adjusting to a bigger court. That problem may not face the Granada Hills players. During the regular season, Granada Hills played San Fernando at the Sports Arena. Although San Fernando won, 70-66, the Granada Hills players say they benefited from the experience.
"I think it's good any time you can play somewhere that your totally unfamiliar with," Granada Hills Coach Bob Johnson said. "At the Sports Arena, the baskets are suspended down there and there aren't any walls behind them--it's a different perspective for a shooter. The backboards are different, the sound is different, the bounce is different. There weren't that many people around when we played and there were sure a lot of echoes around."
Birmingham players seem unfazed by Granada Hills' Sports Arena appearance.
"I don't think it will be that much of a disadvantage," Zuckerman said. "They lost there last time. We're just going to go out there and play our game and hopefully win."
Tonight's game will be the third of the season between Birmingham and Granada Hills. They split the two previous meetings.