WESTCHESTER — The Westchester High boys' basketball team clinched the Coastal Conference and Western League championships last week with a 66-53 victory over Fairfax.
It was the first time that the Comets, who won the City Section 4-A Division title last year, had ever won a league title under Ed Azzam, who has coached at Westchester for 13 years.
Azzam usually has strong teams, but has had the misfortune of being in the same leagues with powers Crenshaw, Manual Arts, Fremont and Fairfax.
Westchester earned the victory over Fairfax despite having its best player on the bench for a portion of the game. Senior James Gray, the Comets' All-City point guard, was held out of the second quarter for all but a few seconds.
Azzam said that he pulled Gray from the game after he "started missing shots he normally makes because he started thinking about them. It wasn't so much that James did anything I didn't like, but that he just was not playing well."
Gray, who led the Comets to the championship of last summer's Watts Games and was named that tournament's most valuable player, has helped Westchester (23-2) earn The Times' No. 1 ranking among City teams.
Gray can be a dominating player, Azzam said, but he sometimes has "problems in the area of self-discipline because his work ethic is not as good as it should be."
But Azzam said that Gray has been working much harder on the basketball court and in the classroom in the past two seasons.
Azzam said that during the 1991 season, Gray averaged about 19 points, five assists and six rebounds. But during the playoffs, when the Comets won the City title, Gray averaged fewer points and more assists and rebounds.
"And we were a much better team," Azzam said.
Gray is a much better player this season than last, Azzam said. "I think he is beginning to understand the mentality of a point guard, although we have been playing him (at) every (position).
"He has really turned into a complete player. He has a way to go with his shot selection and his defensive intensity, but there aren't many high school players around who are better than he is."
During the regular season, Gray averaged 14 points, five assists, six rebounds and four steals a game.
But academically, Gray has yet to score 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which would enable him to be eligible as a college freshman. Gray's first score on the test was 680.
He has been studying with a school counselor to prepare for the examination and is awaiting results from his a second SAT test.
Gray acknowledged that he wasn't much of a student in his first two years of high school, when his grade-point average was about 1.8. "But in my junior year I picked it up," he said, and has raised his average to about 2.5.
This semester he is taking five college preparation courses: geometry, algebra, biology, physical science and American history. He also reports to work at the attendance office at 7:30 a.m. each weekday as part of his service to the school. In addition, he is taking a night class to help build his vocabulary.
If he fails the SAT a second time, Gray will try again. If he fails a third time, he plans to attend a prep school to improve academically before entering college.
When asked why he did not devote more attention to academics during his first two years of high school, Gray said, "I was just lazy."
Said Azzam: "The main reason why he has not been a good student is that he does not have the discipline to go home and study when there are other things to do."
In prep school, however, Gray would have to lead a more regimented life and would have little free time, Azzam said.
Gray has been courted by many colleges and has narrowed his choices to Pepperdine, Syracuse, Memphis State and Wyoming.
Fairfax's Harvey Kitani, who has coached former Michigan and current Orlando Magic player Sean Higgins and Arizona standout Chris Mills, thinks Gray can play at the major-college level.
"He handles the ball adequately and I've seen improvement in that area in the two years he's been in our league," Kitani said. "He drives to the basket well and knows when to pull up and take a shot and when not to. He makes good decisions."
Kitani said that Gray will do "whatever it takes for his team to win, which is a good example of being a team player. And to be a team player, you've got to be a good person."
Santa Monica College Coach John McMullen said that he has seen Gray play only a few times but has liked what he has seen.
"He is a very highly regarded point guard with great quickness," McMullen said. "I think he'll develop into a good college player because he has plenty of tools. He needs to get into a program where he can play and improve because it's always an adjustment moving from one level to the next."