Westchester head basketball coach is as modest as they come. He rarely takes credit for his monumental accomplishments and never points to blame at his players when they are under achieving.
This season was as unusual a basketball season as Azzam has endured during his more than three decades on the sidelines.
Since retiring from the Los Angeles Unified School District as a teacher, Azzam is a walk-on coach for one of the most storied high school basketball programs in the nation.
Lately every season starts with the question of when is he going to retire.
“When I no longer enjoy it,” is always his answer.
That’s why this season was particularly intriguing in regards to the finish line for the winningest coach in City Section history.
The Comets brought in a slew of transfer players who were not highly heralded and while expectations were high because of the name on the front of their uniforms their ability to play at Westchester was suspect.
There was Joseph Johnson from Damien, the lefty junior guard with a deadeye for the three ball, TJ Wainwright from Santa Monica, a bouncy lefty with an unorthodox shot and 6’9 center Marland Harris from Dorsey who embellished unteachable size, but struggled rebounding and scoring inside early on.
They all had to mesh with the ultra steady returning senior floor leader Ky-Mani Pollard, who would have to sacrifice his long range shooting touch for the benefit of his development as a point guard and more specifically the team.
Azzam is a master at teaching and his scowling top assistant Dewitt Cotton equally impressive at cultivating and motivating.
Westchester had lost two games in its own tournament in December, to neighbor St. Bernard 59-57 in the semifinals and for third place to Etiwanda 52-36.
Many had already concluded that this would not be a good year for Westchester, the mix of talent was not fitting into their well orchestrated system of defense first, fundamentals, rebounding, making the right passes and sacrificing your personal game for the benefit of the team.
There were the two defeats at the hands of rival Fairfax, first at home 75-64 and then three days after the death of Kobe Bryant, they blew a 19-point lead at Fairfax and lost again 65-57.
The opportunity for this team to jell and win yet another City championship appeared to be slipping away, but then something happened before the games were played.
The turning point for it all may have came as far away as Orange County when on February 1st they were humiliated by Etiwanda again, this time 63-33 in the prestigious Nike Extravaganza showcase.
This odd collection of players, many of equal size and similar ability, begin to listen to the ole ball coach and the loud assistant and the other coaches that’s when the evolution of arguably one of the greatest performances by a team in a City championship occurred almost four weeks later when they demolished Fairfax to win the Open Division title 68- 43 at Los Angeles Southwest College in front of a capacity crowd that left folks speechless.
Johnson who could not crack the starting line up emerged into a budding star scoring 23 in the title tilt, Wainwright was efficient, Zion Sutton a rock solid 5’9 back up guard start playing like former Dominguez High great Kenny Brunner and Harris who use to appear lost on an island, became a dominant force in the middle, blocking shots, producing thunderous dunks and connecting on baseline mid range shots thus making him an intriguing late blooming prospect.
Two days following their triumph over rival Fairfax, the Comets laid an egg in the Southern California Regional losing 70-46 to CIF-Southern Section Division II Champion Ribet Academy, which also won CIF-Southern Section and CIF State titles last season.
Westchester basketball season concluded with a dud, but nobody at Westchester will remember that game nor will anyone lose any sleep about it. The Comets had already achieved their ultimate goal of winning yet another City title, No. 15 for Azzam, and just one shy of Crenshaw High’s Willie West who won 16.
Now, inquiring minds will shift to the annual ritual of asking if Azzam will return for the 2020-20 season in the fall.
As long as he’s enjoying it! There is nothing not to enjoy about the massive transformation Westchester achieved this season, it was arguably Azzam’s most rewarding one yet.