WESTSIDE — It came as no surprise to Westchester boys' basketball Coach Ed Azzam that his standout player, James Gray, had his most magical performance in the biggest game of the season: the City 4-A Division championship against Crenshaw.
Gray, a 6-foot-4 senior point guard, scored 27 points and had 16 rebounds in a 87-71 victory over Crenshaw. His most significant contribution came in the key fourth quarter when he made his first five shots to secure the victory.
"After that game people were asking how come they haven't heard more about (Gray)," Azzam said. "But those who have seen him play know he's one of the best in the state."
To Azzam, he is more than one of the best. "Arguably, he's the best player in the state. Others have gotten more publicity, but in my opinion there are none better."
Gray averaged 15.5 points and five assists. "He could have easily scored more than 20 points a game, but that wasn't his role," Azzam said.
Azzam describes Gray as a player who is still learning the nuances of the game. "He just has so much ability. He could be one of the best players in the country (collegiately) in a few years."
Recently, Gray was honored as City 4-A co-player of the year along with Washington's Brandon Martin by the First Interstate Bank/Amateur Athletic Foundation board of sportswriters. Today, he adds another laurel to his growing list: He is The Times' Westside Player of the Year.
The Times Coach of the Year is responsible for much of Gray's growth as a player--Ed Azzam. He led the Comets to a 28-3 season and their second consecutive City championship.
Although Westchester won the City title last season, the Comets didn't win the Western League championship--something they accomplished this season for the first time. That's no small feat. The league includes Crenshaw, Manual Arts and Fairfax, three schools with illustrious basketball programs.
Azzam, who has coached at Westchester for the past 13 years, said he has had teams with better players, but this was his best team.
"This group was the most pleasant to coach. They played hard and practiced hard. They accomplished more than any of my other teams." So too did Azzam, according to rival coaches.
One thing the Comets didn't accomplish was winning the state championship, a goal Azzam believed to be a realistic one.
Westchester was beaten, 57-53, by Capistrano Valley in a Southern California Regional Division I semifinal game.
"That loss hurt a lot," Azzam said. "We didn't play well. I don't think they did either. But it was a great season."
Besides Gray, the nine other members of The Times team are Lorenzo Ball, also of Westchester; Trenton Jackson of Santa Monica; Austin Croshere, Crossroads; Burt Harris, Fairfax; Alex Davis, St. Monica; Olin Simplis, Palisades; Andre Stanton, Hamilton; Tyron Thomas, Venice, and Shani Kennedy, Culver City.
The 10-player team was selected based on ballots received from area coaches, who were asked to nominate their own players and opposing players and to select a coach of the year.
The players named to the first team along with their parents and coaches will be guests of The Times at an awards breakfast at 9 a.m. Sunday at the Guest Quarters Suite Hotel in Santa Monica.
Five of the players are repeat selections. They are Gray, Davis, Harris, Kennedy and Thomas. Three juniors made the squad: Croshere, Davis and Simplis.
Here is a look at the players who were selected to the 1992 team:
Lorenzo Ball, Westchester--The 6-5 senior averaged 15.4 points and eight rebounds in addition to being an outstanding three-point shooter and tenacious defender. He is being recruited by St. Mary's and the University of San Diego among others.
Austin Croshere, Crossroads--At 6-9, Coach Daryl Roper expects Croshere to be the most heavily recruited player on the Westside next season. This season's statistics were good enough. He averaged 22.1 points and 14 rebounds. "He's getting letters from everyone," Roper said.
Alex Davis, St. Monica--This talented guard did everything well. He shot 40% from three-point range. He averaged 19.4 points and added five assists and four steals a game. "He's very quick," Coach Leo Klemm said.
James Gray, Westchester--The player of the year could control a game from the point guard position, according to Azzam. "He sees the floor real well," Azzam said. Gray scored at a 15.5-point-a-game average, had six rebounds, five assists and four steals. He is working on improving his grades. Schools showing an interest in Gray include USC, Pepperdine, Fresno State and Georgetown.
Burt Harris, Fairfax--He has already signed a letter of intent to attend USC. Harris averaged almost a point a minute, 29.4 points in a 32-minute high school game. Coach Harvey Kitani said Harris is strong and fast. "He can shoot the three-pointer," he said. "He's averaging a shade under 50% from that range."