by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Last night, I braved considerable traffic to drive down to the Galen Center at U.S.C. and watch the semifinal games of the California Interscholastic Foundation Southern Section Open Division boys basketball championships. A full house was there to see Bishop Montgomery (Torrance), the fourth seed, upset top-seeded Chatsworth Sierra Canyon 70-63 and then the marquee matchup, in which third-seeded Mater Dei (Santa Ana) toppled second seed Chino Hills in overtime, 83-80. The winners meet next Saturday night at the Honda Center in Anaheim and then all four teams head to the state championship tournament a month from now in Sacramento.
This seems like a good time to post a great rare photo from the Homestead’s collection of a high school basketball team from a little more than a century ago and talk about the origins of CIF basketball championships, as well. The cabinet card depicts the Los Angeles High School cagers in 1911 and, though, the team did not play in CIF championships when they started in 1914, some information was found about the dominant team of that era.
That would be the Whittier High School Quakers, which captured the first three crowns in CIF Southern Section basketball. Comparisons between teams then and now are certainly interesting in terms of just how much has changed over the years. Obviously, high school basketball players are bigger, stronger, faster and more athletic. Games are much more high-scoring and entertaining. In “olden days,” set shots and layups were standard ways of scoring and there were no three-point rainbows from 30 feet deep or spectacular alley-oop slam dunks.
As for individual scoring, consider that Chino Hills phenom, sophomore LaMelo Ball, whose older brothers are LiAngelo, a high-scoring senior on the Huskies squad, and Lonzo, a freshman star at UCLA and who is headed to be a top NBA lottery pick in the upcoming draft, dropped 92 (yes, 92) points in a game recently. His brother LiAngelo has scored 72 points in one game, a night after pouring in 56. Great teams can routinely score in the 80s, 90s, and 100s, in 32 minutes of play.
In the 1910s, however, the three championship games won by Whittier all included total scores that had far fewer points scored than young Ball poured in by himself. Whittier took the inaugural crown (technically under the auspices of a precursor to the CIF in February 1914, by besting Riverside High School, 39-26, at the Los Angeles Y.M.C.A. The Los Angeles Times on 21 February reported that, with “passing fast and sure, covering their men faultlessly, [and] shooting goals accurately,” Whittier “conquered because they had the best team, the best teamwork, and Spartan endurance.”
A year later, in February 1915, the Quakers defended its title by narrowly defeating Covina High, 38-32, at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. In an amusing aside, the Los Angeles Times, in its 28 February edition, pointed out that “Covina is used to an out-door court, Whittier to an indoor court; so half the game was played inside and half out.” It is also interesting to note that the score was lower in the gym portion, with Whittier leading 16-11. When the teams moved outside, however, a higher scoring half ensured, with the Quakers taking a slight advantage, 22-21. The Times reported that “the game was hard fought, close enough at all times to be exciting, and filled with enough basket shooting to be spectacular.”
Then, in February 1916, the Quakers made it a three-peat (actually it won an unsanctioned crown in 1913, too) by swamping Citrus Union High School of Azusa, 40-19. There was a bit of drama with Whittier in that title game, as the 19 February issue of the Times reported that Coach John Wilson “got into an altercation with Lester, his brilliant forward, and made him sit on the sidelines the entire game.” Not only that, but the replacement, Stanley, was said to have risen from a sick bed to take Lester’s place and then went out and scored nearly 60% of his team’s points, pouring in 22, all unassisted. The Times lauded the Quakers by stating that “when it comes to basketball Whittier is in a class by itself.” In fact, Whittier had not lost a game in southern California in five years, last dropping a contest to Huntington Beach in 1910.
As with so many areas of life, there has been a tremendous amount of transformation and change in local high school basketball over a century. It can only be imagined what the stars of Whittier’s championship teams of the 1910s would feel having to go up against Mater Dei’s 7-1 sophomore center Bol Bol (son of a former pro player who spanned a stunning 7’7″), Sierra Canyon’s phenom Marvin Bagley III, or Bishop Montgomery’s speedy and athletic guard Ethan Thompson!