OAK PARK — They played kickball, tetherball and handball. They raced tricycles around the block. They laughed when a pencil was shoved up someone's nose and cried when they lost games at recess.
"It was vicious when we were playing," Derek Jacobi said. "Nobody would let themselves lose."
Jacobi and Scott Jones have attended school together since kindergarten. Most of their teammates on the Oak Park High basketball team have known each other since sixth grade.
In an era when athletes transfer depending on what school fits their agenda, Oak Park is that rare public high school flourishing with home-grown products.
The Eagles (16-5, 5-0) are on the verge of winning their fifth Tri-Valley League championship in seven years. Eight of the nine seniors have gone to school together since sixth grade. Every player lives in Oak Park, a small enclave next to Agoura Hills.
"Everyone on the team is dedicated to each other, and I think the community respects that," said Zach Smith, a 6-foot-7 senior center.
Practices are sometimes more intense than games because every basket, blocked shot or steal made by a lifelong friend is worth a week of bragging rights.
It is an ideal situation for Coach Rob Hall, 36, who has relied on a core group of neighborhood families to build his program. Eight players in the program are younger brothers of former Eagle players.
"I think this is exactly what teaching was meant to be," Hall said. "You're trying to teach how to take on challenges, how to deal with ups and downs."
Only last week, Oak Park was recognized as the No. 1 academic public high school in Ventura County based on results of the state-wide Academic Performance Index. Two students scored 1600 on the SAT.
On the basketball team, 6-4 junior forward Jeremy Murphy had a 4.8 grade-point average last semester and has never received a grade lower than A on his report card.
During road trips in the school van, players argue about physics, chemistry and calculus. Murphy and Jacobi have an ongoing squabble over the derivative of logarithms and talk like they are trying to build a nuclear reactor.
"I was just trying to teach Derek some calculus," Murphy said. "He had thought the derivative of a natural logarithm was one over u multiplied by the natural log of b, but I explained to him you can't have a base of b because the base of a natural logarithm is always e; therefore, your final equation is always one over u times the derivative of u."
Thank goodness calculus is not a requirement to be a sportswriter.
"These are world-class talkers," Hall said. "They've got an opinion on everything."
They play basketball quite well, too.
Murphy is averaging 19.1 points and 8.6 rebounds. "He has extraordinary discipline," Hall said.
Smith is averaging 11.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and has 107 blocked shots.
Jason Adams, a 6-4 junior, repeatedly outruns players down court. "He cleans up on the offensive boards," Hall said.
Jones has been attending Oak Park games since 1992. Two older brothers, Brett and Greg, played for the Eagles. He's averaging 6.6 assists.
Jacobi is the Eagles' designated shooter. He has made 41 of 106 three-point shots.
Reserve guard Kelly Ross is a wiry 6-2 senior with a 4.3 GPA and impressive bloodlines. His father, Cary, was a 7-foot high jumper at UCLA and his mother, Nancy, is the sister of Olympic swimming legend Mark Spitz.
Attending an Oak Park home game is like hanging out in a small town and watching everyone in the neighborhood drop by.
"Every Friday night is like a community event," Murphy said.
Players are enjoying success without the aid of transfers.
"It's special for us to be accomplishing what we are with what we have," Adams said.
Added Smith: "We're not going out and getting players. We're taking what we have and winning. It makes us feel a lot better that we're the ones doing it."
One athlete who did leave was All-American football player Travis Johnson, who transferred after his freshman year to play at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame. But Johnson still lives down the street from Oak Park and remains friends with many Eagle players.
"Travis is such a great kid, I don't know if anybody held his leaving against him," Hall said. "We hated losing him."
Watching the camaraderie and fun experienced by these best of friends is a reminder of what life was like years ago in the San Fernando Valley, when kids went to neighborhood schools from kindergarten and built relationships that lasted into adulthood.
At least it's still happening at Oak Park.
"These guys, when they walk across the stage at graduation, they're going to be like brothers," Hall said.
Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or email@example.com