Like any good poker player, Westchester High School Coach Ed Azzam generally likes to play 'em close to the chest. But that doesn't mean he's not willing to take a risk.
And his gambles have paid off this year in the form of seven wins and no losses, the first time a Westchester basketball team has made such an impressive start.
His Comets will be able to test their lucky streak on Saturday in the first round of the Las Vegas Holiday Prep Classic, a tournament that features teams from all over the nation.
"We don't mind taking risks," said point guard Sam Crawford, whose style has enough flash to match the bright lights of the Strip. "Sometimes you get beat and sometimes you come out the hero. But it proves how much heart you have."
Westchester, with stars like Crawford, Zan Mason and Michael Brown, has enough talent. And the team also had enough heart to win the prestigious Tournament of Champions last week at Cal Poly Pomona, rolling the dice several times just to reach the final.
In the quarterfinal, Crespi's guards had baffled Westchester's defense by bombing three-pointers from the outside and making touch passes inside for easy baskets. So Azzam countered with a wild array of defensive setups.
"We tried everything I know and some things I didn't know--a 2-3 zone, a 1-3-1 zone, a full-court press, man pressure and man contain," said Azzam, who gambled again by pulling four of his starters in the last 50 seconds to maintain defensive freshness. Westchester held on to win 55-47.
Against El Toro in the final, Azzam sat down hot-shooting forward Renaud Gordon because his concentration was faltering on defense. "I was willing to lose if it meant we would learn what it takes to play," Azzam said.
Crawford even pulled off a gamble of his own in the final. With the score tied 72-72 and 15 seconds left in overtime, El Toro had the ball and was working for the final shot. Crawford was guarding Bret Johnson, who had 22 points in the game.
Johnson set a screen and then cut through the key with Eric Speaker dribbling at the point. Crawford released from Johnson, leaving him wide open under the basket, then lunged for Speaker's pass.
Fortunately for Westchester, Crawford came up with the steal and went all the way to the hoop for the winning layup, two of his 24 points and MVP honors for the tournament.
"I'm still kind of concerned because I'm not used to winning as easily as these guys make it seem," said ninth-year coach Azzam, whose 1982 Westchester squad went 0-10 in league. "But this is a team of 10 very talented individuals."
Among them are:
Mason, a 6-foot-7, 210-pound forward, who is averaging 20.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Veteran scout Don Mead considers him one of the best junior prospects in the nation.
"He has great instincts and intelligence," said Mead, whose Irvine-based scouting service provides reports for 180 colleges and universities. "He's the same size as (Dallas Mavericks forward) Mark Aguirre, but he could be more stable and solid than Aguirre."
Mason is one of the most highly courted prospects in California, and so far, has been contacted by every Big 10 school except Indiana, every Big East school except Georgetown, every Atlantic Coast Conference school except North Carolina and all Pac 10 and PCAA schools.
Azzam has worked hard with Mason this year to improve his overall defense and passing. Last year, the sophomore averaged 20 points a game but had only one assist all year. This year, he has five.
"Against one man, Zan's unstoppable," Azzam said. "Against two guys, he'll probably score. But against three or four defenders, he should be looking to give the ball up."
Crawford, a junior who Azzam looks to for floor leadership this year. So far he's responded with averages of 14.2 points and 8.7 assists per game and has contributed 18 steals. He's dangerous from three-point range but also likes to drive the lane for twisting, spectacular layups. And he's one of the best at running the fast break.
"In a run-and-gun type game, I just like to watch him," Azzam said. "A lot of times guys can't believe the ball gets to them."
Crawford is the adopted son of Ronald Carter, a guard with the Lakers in 1978 and '79. He credits Carter and his friend Norm Nixon for inspiring him on and off the court and for making his desire to be a great point guard a serious one.
"A good, average point guard will take a risk only when the game isn't on the line," Crawford said. "But a great point guard will take a chance and really dig down when it's time to win. That's what I'd like to try to do."
Brown, who is probably one of the most underrated players in the City Section. But Cal State Fullerton Coach George McQuarn probably found a nugget when he signed the 6-6 senior guard in November.