Westchester Coach Ed Azzam watches his team during a game. (Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles…)
When Ed Azzam started coaching basketball at Westchester High in the late 1970s, the City Section was in a golden era.
Willie West was a towering figure at Crenshaw High. Reggie Morris Sr. was holding his own at Manual Arts. Fremont and Dorsey had strong programs. So did Palisades and Granada Hills Kennedy.
Azzam, in his early 20s, was trying to build a program from scratch.
"I don't like losing and oftentimes the games weren't competitive," he said. "I developed the philosophy our goal wasn't to become Crenshaw or beat Crenshaw. Our goal was to be competitive in every game. Westchester was a middle-of-the-pack team. We had to develop a mentality we were going to be in every game."
Azzam never would have predicted he would stick around for 35 years at the same school, let alone win 803 games, 12 City Section championships and six state titles.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 15, 2014 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Westchester coach: In the Jan. 10 Sports section, an article about Westchester boys' basketball Coach Ed Azzam said that his teams had won 803 games and that the 804th victory would push him past Crenshaw's Willie West for the most victories in City Section history. Azzam had 757 victories at the time of the article and, after a victory on Jan. 11, is now 45 victories behind West.
"Looking back, I'm extremely surprised," he said.
On Saturday night, Azzam could make history if Westchester defeats Sacramento Sheldon in an 8:30 p.m. game at Cerritos College. He would pass West as the City Section's winningest coach at 804 victories. Only Lou Cvijanovich of Oxnard Santa Clara (829), Mike Phelps of Oakland Bishop O'Dowd (843) and Gary McKnight of Santa Ana Mater Dei (975) have more victories in state history.
"The record doesn't mean anything to me," he said. "It's a testament to longevity and having good kids and good assistants. I try to put the kids in position to be successful."
West was a legendary figure, coaching for more than three decades until his retirement at Crenshaw in 2007. He won 16 City titles and eight state titles. His best teams didn't just win. They demolished opponents with a full-court press that left some coaches in tears.
Azzam kept plugging away. Westchester began to benefit from an influx of talented players.
"We pride ourselves in our ability to defend," he said. "Some years are better than others. Defense wins championships, but if you don't have kids who can put the ball into a basket, it makes it tough."
Former Woodland Hills Taft coach Derrick Taylor did battle with Azzam and used him as a measuring stick.
"If you're playing an Ed Azzam team late in the playoffs, you knew you were doing all right," he said. "He's a basketball genius. He's one of the most difficult coaches to coach against. His teams are among the most physical and they're always prepared."
Harvey Kitani has coached at rival Fairfax for 33 years. He and Azzam have engaged in almost yearly coaching duels over the last decade, and what Kitani has come to appreciate most about Azzam is how he treats people away from the court.
"He doesn't put himself bigger than anyone," Kitani said. "He is who he is and is always the same person. When I saw he had tied Willie and was going to pass him, I thought, 'Wow, what an accomplishment.' "
Through the years, Azzam has sent numerous players to the college ranks and produced such NBA players as Trevor Ariza and Amir Johnson. It was Johnson's controversial transfer from Los Angeles Verbum Dei that resulted in Westchester's being banned from the playoffs in 2003-04 after allegations that he was recruited by an assistant coach. Johnson was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Azzam seems to have achieved great joy in recent years directing teams without star players. Last season, he deployed a hockey-like substitution pattern, sending in a fresh group of five players every couple of minutes. It resulted in another City title.
"It was fun, because they bought into it and put their egos aside," he said.
This season's team is 12-4 and favored to win another City title, though defensive inconsistency has Azzam concerned. "When we're shooting the ball well, this team is unbeatable," he said.
Rumors started 10 years ago that Azzam might soon retire. There's no indication of that happening.
"It's been one of those situations I enjoy the school and love the kids, and there's no reason to think of doing anything different.... As long as I'm having a good time and the kids are willing to learn, I'm fine," he said.
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High school's hardwood legends
Winningest California prep basketball coaches:
*--* Wins Coach (School) Years 975 Gary McKnight (Mater Dei) 1983-present 843 Mike Phelps (Alameda St. Joseph) 1971-78 (Oakland Bishop O'Dowd) 1979-1990, 1992-2003 829 Lou Cvijanovich ( Santa Clara) 1959-1999 803 Ed Azzam (Westchester) 1979-present 803 Willie West (Crenshaw) 1971-2007 802 Abe Abrami (Emeryville Emery) 1955-1993 794 Mike LeDuc (Damien) 1980-86(Glendora) 1987-1992, 1994-present *--*