Damon Charlot was not exactly sure if his coach was pulling his leg. And Cleveland High Coach Bob Braswell may have pulled the biggest con since Tommy Lasorda converted an outfielder to a catcher with a similar purported fact from the history-or-fantasy file.
"He told me he once held Stuart Gray to eight points," Charlot said of Braswell, who played at Cleveland while Gray was at Kennedy. "I don't know if that's true--he probably did it just to pump me up--but I guess I believe him."
Believe it or not, Charlot did Braswell one better, holding 6-foot, 7-inch Fairfax All-American Chris Mills to only seven points--30 under his league average--as Cleveland beat the Lions for the first time in seven tries, 54-50, before a packed house in a Valley League game at Cleveland.
Charlot, a 6-3 senior forward, was Cleveland's hit man. His sole assignment was to measure Mills' inseam from the inside.
"Braz told me that by the end of the game he wanted to know what size underwear Mills wears," Charlot said. "I can't actually tell you what size, but I know I was pretty close."
Mills, the City Section 4-A Division player of the year in 1986, usually scores at will, but Charlot's body stalking had Fairfax in fits. Charlot consistently denied Mills the ball, practically undressing him on the court. Mills had only one point in the first half and finished 3 for 11 from the field. He also had only four rebounds.
"He had two assignments," Braswell said of Charlot. "Deny him the ball and screen him off the boards. That boy played the greatest defensive game I've ever seen."
While Charlot shredded Mills defensively, Cleveland forward Richard Branham was having the game of his life at the offensive end. Branham, a 6-4 forward who started for the first time since December, scored a team-high 19 points and had 10 rebounds.
"He's an All-American, and I'm not all that highly rated," said Branham, who will attend Cal next year. "I just gave him all I had. They'd beaten us too many times in a row. I was tired of it."
Fairfax's 78-69 win in the league opener Dec. 15 was the team's sixth in a row over Cleveland, a streak that includes a Fairfax victory in last season's 4-A final. In December, Mills buried Branham and Cleveland with 42 points and 17 rebounds. Branham scored eight points, and was relegated to the bench thereafter.
"And we've been thinking about this game ever since," Branham said. "At least I know I have."
Cleveland (14-3, 6-1 in league play) dared Fairfax to shoot from outside, but the Lions (13-4, 7-1) continued to try to work the ball inside to Mills. By halftime, Cleveland had taken a 27-18 lead and Mills had taken only three shots. The only player keeping the Lions within reach was senior forward Ilan Levy-Mayer, who scored all nine Fairfax points in the first quarter and 11 of his game-high 22 by the half.
Cleveland expanded its lead to 29-18 to open the third, but Fairfax finally started gunning from outside and connected on four consecutive three-point shots in a 14-2 spurt to cut the Cleveland lead to 39-38 after three quarters.
"I figured they'd start taking it sometime," Braswell said. "All we were going to give them was the outside shot. They had to start looking for it sooner or later."
Fairfax probably looked too late. Branham came alive in the fourth, scoring 8 of Cleveland's 15 points, including a spinning dunk over Mills with 4:05 left to give the Cavaliers a 47-40 lead.
The teams traded a pair of baskets before Charlot--who finished with seven points--made a layup with 2:14 left to give Cleveland a 51-44 lead. Fairfax forward Malcom Megginson hit two free throws and Mills capitalized on a turnover by Adonis Jordan (13 points) to cut the margin to 51-48 with 1:37 to play. Megginson scored inside with 44 seconds left--after Cleveland's Lucious Harris badly missed a dunk attempt--to cut the lead to 51-50.
Charlot was fouled with 21 seconds to play and made the first of two free throws. The miss was rebounded by Mills, who took the ball the length of the court, made a 360-degree spin move and fired from 15 feet with eight seconds left--and missed.
Cleveland controlled the rebound, and Joey Manliguis scored Cleveland's final points on two free throws with three seconds left.
Cleveland, which plays at Hamilton on Friday, can move into a tie with Fairfax at 7-1 in league play with a win. Fairfax has a bye Friday.