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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

'Hoosiers' Remake in Desert

January 11, 2002|Eric Sondheimer

Josh Zazulia, Donald Brady and Chase McQuillen have been nearly inseparable since third grade. They've gone to the same schools, played on the same basketball teams and hung out in the same neighborhoods.

They are senior starters on Palm Desert High's basketball team. Each scored more than 1,300 on the SAT and has a grade-point average of 3.9 or higher.

Their dream is to star in a West Coast version of the 1986 movie "Hoosiers," about a basketball team from a small Indiana town that wins the state championship.

"Josh has watched that movie before every basketball season since fourth grade," Chase said. "I absolutely hated it because it was slow and lame. But I grew to like it. It is kind of a comparison to us."

Palm Desert (14-4) is one of those rare basketball teams in Southern California comprised mostly of players who grew up down the street from one another. Their parents are contractors, teachers, nurses, construction workers, businessmen and homemakers. Seven of the 12 players have known each other since elementary school.

"It's a neighborhood feel to this team," said Coach Don Brady, Donald's father. "The central theme has been work hard on your grades and basketball will come. We've been blessed with kids not very athletic but they have basketball fundamentals."

Added Donald: "These are the players who live in the area. We're doing it how high school basketball is supposed to be played--the high school you watched as a kid growing up you're playing for and not driving 11/2 hours to play on a team."

It's inspiring to see how much fun the Palm Desert players have.

"We're all kind of like brothers," Donald said. "If you watch us play, we're always smiling. It's enjoyable. Everyone on our team likes everyone else."

They're a reminder of a different era, when families moved into an area and sent their children to neighborhood schools, from kindergarten through high school, and coaches didn't have to worry about players coming or leaving on the basis of a team's success.

"It's a great experience, it really is," Chase said. "We're all friends on the court. Nobody is really an individual. We know each other's strengths. If we need something done, we know the right person to go to."

Chase, Josh and Donald are so close they know each other's most embarrassing moments and best-kept secrets.

There was the time in eighth grade when Donald streaked across a golf course during Josh's birthday party.

"I don't remember that," Donald said.

There was the time Donald brought over his dog in fifth grade to meet Chase's dog.

"We thought they'd get along perfectly," Chase said. "His dog bit my dog's ear and made him bleed. I was ashamed. I was hoping my dog would win."

There was the time Josh ran against Donald for president of the fifth grade at Gerald R. Ford Elementary School. Donald promised to plant new trees to make the campus look better. Josh promised free pizza at lunch time. Josh won in a landslide.

But Josh is still tormented about the time in kindergarten when four classmates were chosen to be Ninja Turtles and he had to be Splinter, the wise man.

"I used to wish they were sick and didn't come to school so I could be a Ninja Turtle," he said.

"You'd think he'd be over it 12 years later," said Donald, who was one of the Ninja Turtles.

And then there was the time Chase and Josh got into a fight on the basketball court during practice a couple of years ago.

"I think I did something to get Josh mad and he retaliated," Chase said. "I went crazy on him. It's not like I beat him up. He slapped me and we rolled around on the ground wrestling."

Said Donald: "They fought for five minutes and laughed for five minutes."

Josh is 6 feet 3 and has become Palm Desert's all-time scoring leader. He averages 15.7 points. Donald is 6-1, averages 15.5 points and has 52 three-pointers. Chase, 6-1, is in his first year as a starter, averaging 12.9 points. Since third grade, their coach has been Donald's father.

"We've learned everything exactly the same under the same coaching for so long," Donald said.

Added Josh: "We trust ourselves on the court. We know what each of us likes to do. It's kind of like I don't need to look when I have to pass. I know they're going to be there and make the shot."

Don Brady started Palm Desert's basketball program 16 years ago. He entered this season with a record of 170-170. These days, with expectations of winning championship after championship, that's the kind of record that can lead to the firing of a high school coach. But Brady goes with the players who show up and offers them more than just an education in basketball.

For 12 years, his players have volunteered to speak to junior high and elementary students about making wise decisions.

"It's good for my kids as well as the kids they speak to because it recommits them to the choices they make," he said.

For Josh, Donald and Chase, there are no regrets about their choices to excel in school, play basketball and, most of all, embrace friendships that could last a lifetime.

Soon, they'll be going their separate ways for college. Josh wants to become a businessman, Chase an engineer and Donald a teacher.

"In a couple of months, [basketball is] going to be over and in five or six months, high school will be over," Josh said. "You need to enjoy the time while it's still here."

Since third grade, they've dreamed of trying to win a Southern Section championship in their senior year. They're in Division III-AA and have a chance to send a powerful message.

"We're showing teams you don't have to transfer somewhere to have success on a basketball team," Donald said. "We've all stayed together and success is coming from a team that stuck together."

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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