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Successful on Shoestring Budget

Prep basketball: Azzam started Westchester's winning ways, long before school received support from Nike.

April 11, 2002|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He drives the luxury model now, the sharpest-looking, highest-horsepower boys' basketball team of the lot.

But Ed Azzam also knows there are plenty of people who believe the Westchester High squad he coaches is nothing but a vehicle of Nike, its well-heeled sponsor.

Those folks probably weren't around in the early days, he says.

Azzam, 47, has been head coach of the Westchester boys' basketball team nearly half his life, and he vividly remembers when he could only dream the Comets would win two state championships and be the headliner in tournaments across the country, all while receiving free gear from the world's No. 1 sports retailer.

When Azzam came to Westchester 23 years ago--supposedly for only one season--he inherited a roster of players who, by his recollection, ''couldn't dribble, couldn't pass, couldn't shoot.''

Which was OK, because he couldn't coach. He had come to Westchester after three years as an assistant at West Los Angeles College thinking he ''had to manage every screen, every shot.''

''It was bad coaching,'' he said. ''The guys fought me. I fought the guys.''

And while his teams were snuffed, Azzam burned.

Short and stocky, he had been a guard of little renown as a player, for Gardena High and West L.A. He fancied himself a good shooter, but he prided himself on defense.

He coached with the same tenacity as he once hawked opposing players. He took each loss personally, as if it were a direct reflection on him.

One particularly humiliating loss stands out.

Crenshaw, which dominated City Section basketball in the 1980s, was badly beating Westchester when Coach Willie West inexplicably reinserted his starters for the final minutes.

Azzam was beside himself. His team was being shown up, and he was embarrassed.

John Williams, the Crenshaw star who went on to play for Louisiana State University and in the NBA, was having a field day ... until he knocked himself out when, after he ferociously threw down a dunk, the rim snapped back and hit him in the forehead.

At which point Azzam calmly walked over to Coach West, folded his arms, and said dryly, ''I hope he's dead.''

The coach smiles when he tells that story. It's an old one but a good one.

In the past three seasons his teams are 84-11, having won consecutive City championships by an average of 22 points a game. In the past six years, Comet alumni includes Brandon Granville and David Bluthenthal of USC, Billy Knight of UCLA, Tony Bland of San Diego State, Chris Osborne of Arizona State and Chad Bell of New Mexico.

Turning Point

Westchester broke Crenshaw's hold by winning City championships in 1991 and '92, and the Comets have had an upper hand in recent years.

Things have changed so much that the coach who once felt compelled to micro-manage everything nowadays lets his players work out for themselves who they should guard.

By most accounts, Westchester turned the corner for good by winning its first state championship in the 1997-98 season. Nike was a partial sponsor that season, providing free shoes to Comet players.

When Westchester won its title, the team was rewarded with a contract for free complete outfitting for the next four years, making it easier than ever to attract top players.

This past season, when the Comets went 32-2 and won their second state championship, each player received more than $1,300 in gear and most of the team's travel to four out-of-state tournaments was paid for.

But if anyone thinks Azzam should feel guilty about that, they can think again. With a friend, he says he once figured out that the $2,200 he is paid by the school to coach works out to about 25 cents an hour over the course of a year.

He has worked too hard to attribute too much of his teams' success to Nike, although, he concedes, its backing ''probably has something to do with it.''

Nike is certainly a big piece of Westchester's network, but Azzam has many connections. To wit, part of the foundation for his current championship team was built this way:

A former Westchester player, Dartgnan Stamps, became a youth coach, and plucked the best players from the talent-rich playgrounds in Venice and Inglewood for his travel team. For practice, Stamps brought his team to the Westchester gymnasium, where the players met Westchester players and coaches and ended up wanting to attend Westchester games. At the games, they were allowed into the Westchester locker room, where they listened to the chalk talks and go-get-'em speeches of the straight-talking head coach.

A year later, to the surprise of no one, three of Stamps' best players--none of them from the school's primary attendance area--enrolled at Westchester.

A year later, another of Stamps' youth players--a grade behind the others--decided to become a Comet. Around the same time, DeWitt Cotton, another former Westchester player who is now one of the team's assistant coaches, invited an acquaintance of his--Marlon Morton--to join him on the Westchester staff.

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