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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

City Section Division II's upper-echelon basketball drama

The El Camino Real-Garfield championship game, won by the Conquistadores, proves exhilarating and the teams' support inspiring.

March 04, 2012|Eric Sondheimer

Pride. Passion. Perseverance.

To see those qualities on display in the bleachers and on the court Friday night at the City Section Division II basketball championship game made me proud to say I'm a graduate of the much-maligned Los Angeles Unified School District.

Listening to the deafening crowd noise, watching the magnificent jump shots being drained by El Camino Real's Julian Richardson and Garfield's Francisco Aguilar, feeling the genuine excitement throughout the gym — it was high school sports at the absolute best.

There was no live television of El Camino Real's 62-53 victory. Where was Time Warner Cable? Where was Fox Sports West? If only they knew what they were missing.

Except that I understand the skepticism. This wasn't Mater Dei-Long Beach Poly, or even Taft-Dorsey. This was one of those made-up divisions created several years ago to help the City Section get more teams in the state tournament and soothe the egos of coaches wanting the opportunity to play for a championship and not have to face the likes of Westchester or Crenshaw.

I've avoided attending these games in the past. I don't like the proliferation of playoff divisions and the Little League-like philosophy that every kid deserves a trophy no matter how watered down the competition might become.

But what I witnessed in the sold-out Los Angeles Roybal gymnasium has changed my thinking.

The drama was exhilarating, the commitment of the individual communities was inspiring, and watching it unfold sent me back to the 1980s, when the City Section used to hold its championships at the Sports Arena before raucous crowds. The games would end past 11:30 p.m., I'd curse about missing my deadline and walk out sweating and mumbling, "Wow," because the games between neighborhood teams were so good.

El Camino Real is going to be competing for a City Division I championship in the next year or two, but the Conquistadores won't forget their Division II celebration scene, a bunch of mostly sophomores partying on the court.

And the disappointed Garfield players will remember their loyal fans rising to their feet in the fourth quarter with an unbelievable roar when their underdog team had wiped out a 13-point deficit to take the lead.

"We couldn't hear the players asking questions," Garfield Coach Ricardo Rivas said. "It was a March Madness atmosphere."

It's hard to believe there might be more dedicated sports fans than the ones who live in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. I've been to the Roosevelt-Garfield football game, where more than 23,000 pack a stadium to see who earns community bragging rights.

On Friday, eight fans were holding up letters to spell out "GARFIELD" in the bleachers when their team would do something special.

El Camino Real fans were equally vocal at times, trying to boost their school to its first basketball championship after winning dozens of titles in baseball, soccer, softball, tennis and swimming.

What I'll remember most is Garfield senior guard Angel Camacho. His hair is so long he could have starred as the surfer dude in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," a 1982 movie classic.

"Oh my God, I've been on him to cut his hair since he was a freshman," Rivas said. "If we had won, he said he would have cut it."

Well, there are always the state playoffs that begin this week to get Camacho to renew his pledge.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATSondheimer

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