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Standout High School Guard Gray Turning Comets' Opponents Blue

July 11, 1991|GREG GONZALEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This story is a familiar one: A talented high school basketball player displays a bad attitude. The coach does not stand for it and dismisses the player from the team. The player realizes his misdeeds and returns to the team with a new attitude.

This is what happened with Westchester High senior James Gray and his coach, Ed Azzam, but with a different twist. Gray's problems developed from a ninth-grade math class taught by Azzam and had nothing to do with basketball.

"I made him ineligible," Azzam said. "He thought he could skate by and get a grade and I failed him. He gave me those eyes, like I couldn't do it to him."

But Azzam did. Gray came back the next year and became a starter for the junior varsity team. Last season, he emerged as one of the top point guards in the City Section, helping Westchester to the 4-A Division title.

Gray, an All-City and All-Westside selection, was named most valuable player of the 122-team L.A. Watts Summer Games two weeks ago after leading Westchester to the title. The Comets beat defending City 3-A champion and State Division I finalist Fremont, 64-58, in three overtimes.

After winning the competition, Westchester had a 12-0 record this summer.

"Our record doesn't mean anything, it's only the summer, but a lot of it is due to James," Azzam said.

How did Gray develop into an all-star?

"He worked and worked and worked and worked," Azzam said. "Last year he and LeRoi O'Brien (who will attend Pepperdine in the fall) were our hardest workers. Because James has improved his work ethic, he has become an outstanding player."

Gray began getting noticed during last year's playoffs. The Comets had to play Crenshaw in the semifinals, a team they had never beaten in playoff competition before.

"Everybody around school was saying 'Your season is over, you can't beat them,' " Gray said. "Student body support here is nothing to brag about, but we came in real confident and intense."

Gray contributed 18 points and nine assists to help Westchester to a 74-68 victory over Crenshaw.

"That's got to be my best memory in basketball," said Gray, whose career highs are 31 points against Artesia last week and 14 assists against Venice last season. "We were more pumped up after that than after winning City over Manual Arts."

Westchester lost in the first round of the State Division I playoffs to Long Beach Jordan.

Gray said the team's goals for next season include winning the Coastal Conference title (which Westchester has never won), successfully defending its City title and winning the state title.

"We're set to win state," Gray said. "And we know we have to work to get it."

Said Azzam: "A week ago I wouldn't have said we could do it, but now I think we have a chance at state. We've played some tough teams and beaten them and a lot of it is to James' credit."

In addition to Gray, the Comets return starters Lorenzo Ball, Lavalle Ball, Jason Sanders and Maurice Robinson. O'Brien, who was the City 4-A player of the year, will be replaced by 6-foot-9 Marty Cotwright.

The team appears to have the ability to overcome adversity. Against St. Monica in the quarterfinals of the Watts Games, Westchester scored three points in the first 10 minutes of the game.

It was Westchester's eighth game in seven days, and fatigue was showing. Disgusted with their play, the Comets rallied and won easily.

Gray has already been contacted by several colleges. He has a 2.8 grade-point average and will take the Scholastic Aptitude Test in October. Schools that have contacted him include San Diego State, Colorado, Hawaii and Pepperdine. But his dream is to play for Syracuse.

"Ever since I was little and watched Stevie Thompson play at Crenshaw and then at Syracuse, I've wanted to go there," Gray said. "But I haven't heard from anybody."

At least not yet.

"He's got the skills to go Division I," Azzam said. "He's got to work on his shot and a lot of other things. He's a very young player, and I don't mean in terms of age. He's only had one year of real basketball, so he's a raw talent. In a couple years, he'll be an outstanding player."

In addition to Westchester's 30-game summer schedule, Gray plays pickup games against USC's Harold Miner and other college players and hopes to attend a summer camp in Dana Point.

Gray wants to pursue a career in law enforcement or broadcasting.

Gray is young for a 12th-grader. He will turn 16 on Aug. 29, so he will be competing against players at least one year and many times two years older than he will be next season.

"That boosts me up, knowing I'm younger," Gray said. "I know I can rise up to any level of competition."

The best thing Gray does, however, is make his teammates rise to the level of competition.

"He does whatever it takes," said Walter Walker, a junior center for the Comets and one of Gray's best friends. "He'll score, he'll bang the boards, he'll make the steal, whatever. He makes everybody better."

Said Gray: "If I wanted people to say one thing about me as a basketball player, I would like them to say that I am unselfish. I could get zero points and zero assists, and if we won I would be happy."

As it turns out, Gray is helping the team after helping himself, a lesson he perhaps learned in a freshman math class.

Gray's success this summer is not limited to the basketball court. In a summer school economics class, he is earning an A.

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