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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

From Taft to UCLA, Farmar Hits Stride

November 04, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

It's a hot October afternoon in Woodland Hills, and members of the Taft High boys' basketball team have been ordered to run a mile in less than 6 1/2 minutes as a conditioning drill.

Taft Coach Derrick Taylor isn't allowed to attend the workout under City Section rules, so he hands a stopwatch to senior point guard Jordan Farmar, who leads the team in four laps around the track.

Most of the players beat the time limit, but sophomore Calvin Haynes didn't run very hard or very fast and now must run two more laps as punishment. He's tired, complaining and making excuses.

"I've got a headache," he said.

Farmar glares at Haynes while sitting on a concrete step and responds with a swift, stinging rebuke.

"I don't [expletive] care," he said. "Go!"

Haynes takes off and runs his two laps, suddenly looking refreshed and full of energy.

It's another example of Farmar's many special qualities that have helped propel him to national prominence.

He doesn't turn 17 until Nov. 30, but his leadership and self-confidence only add to the point guard's growing reputation.

Bob Gibbons, a North Carolina-based basketball recruiting expert, rated Farmar No. 8 on his preseason list of the nation's top 100 boys' players.

Yutaka Shimizu, who has coached basketball for 45 years and became an assistant coach at Taft this season, said, "He's like an old-school player in a young body. That's a rare commodity."

On Nov. 12, Farmar will sign a letter of intent with UCLA, culminating a two-year journey that saw him grow from an unknown, untested sophomore into one of the nation's most respected recruits.

Farmar built his reputation not through some marketing gimmick or luck but by getting down and dirty and taking on any and all comers.

"Most kids shoot 500 shots, but he shot until he made 500," Taylor said.

Said Gibbons: "It's a startling phenomenon that he literally exploded on the national scene. Jordan Farmar came from being a marginal top-100 player to [perhaps] being in the top five when it's all said and done. It's a rare situation."

At this time in 2001, Farmar was preparing for his sophomore season at Lake Balboa Birmingham. He played only in December, averaging 25 points in five of his final six games until he was suspended by Coach Al Bennett when word leaked that Farmar intended to transfer to Taft at the semester break for academic reasons.

With no team to play for in January and February of 2002, Farmar practiced on his own. Then came his big break. A sportswriter who had seen him play in the Chaminade tournament recommended to the Pump brothers, Dana and David, that Farmar would be a good candidate to play for their travel team. He joined their B team in March and became an overnight sensation.

By the end of the summer, coaches Mike Montgomery of Stanford, Lute Olson of Arizona and Henry Bibby of USC were following him and sending him recruiting letters.

He followed up the summer with an All-City junior season at Taft, averaging 28.5 points. Then came an intense, all-out recruiting onslaught.

During the basketball season, Gonzaga Coach Mark Few showed up at a Taft game with his entire team sitting in the bleachers rooting for Farmar. During a trip to Arizona, Farmar found himself talking alone with Olson just three minutes before tipoff. Florida Coach Billy Donovan wanted Farmar so badly that he and his assistants placed 11 phone calls to Taylor one morning. When Ben Howland replaced Steve Lavin as UCLA coach, among his first priorities was to begin recruiting Farmar. By mutual decision, Farmar didn't want to play for Lavin and Lavin didn't think Farmar was good enough for UCLA.

After returning from a recruiting trip to Florida last May, Farmar seemed certain of his college choice.

"I pretty much made up my mind to go to Florida," he said.

But Howland refused to give up. He kept calling Taylor and insisted that Farmar take one more trip to UCLA.

"Coach Taylor said, 'I can't even sleep at night. Go on an official visit so they'll leave me alone,' " Farmar said.

Impressed by Howland's passion and relentless demeanor, Farmar agreed to the visit. Soon, Farmar's college destiny became clear.

"I couldn't pass [UCLA] up," he said. "They had everything I need 30 minutes from home. [Howland] made me realize it would be the smartest thing for me."

After a summer in which he traveled to Virginia, Colorado, Indiana and Nevada for camps and competitions, the 6-foot-2, 170-pound Farmar is eager to show he's continuing to improve.

He has deceptive speed and likes to lull defenders into thinking he's barely moving, then unleashes a burst toward the basket. He has good three-point shooting range and can adjust to whatever role is needed to help his team.

Farmar has played against Laker guard Gary Payton in pickup games and was a teammate of Michael Jordan at a camp in Santa Barbara.

"It was cool," he said. "It makes you have a lot of confidence."

Farmar thrives on challenges and never wants to disappoint. Even if he's playing in a pickup game, he refuses to let his reputation do the talking.

"I have to prove myself," he said.

A San Fernando Valley team hasn't won the City Section upper-division championship in boys' basketball since Granada Hills in 1964. But don't tell that to Farmar.

Full of confidence and dreams, Farmar insists, "We're going to be cutting down the nets -- remember that."

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

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