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Reflections on Ed Azzam’s 42 years as Westchester basketball coach

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It was back in April, when the Los Angeles Unified School District announced there would be a basketball season after months of COVID-19 restrictions, that I called Westchester coach Ed Azzam to get his reaction. That’s when there was a clear hint a retirement decision was near. He hadn’t even heard the news. He wasn’t checking every day to find out. He was happy for his players, but I didn’t sense excitement for his 42nd season.

So after Westchester lost to Birmingham in Saturday night’s City Section Open Division championship game, Azzam told his players what he had told his assistant coaches a month earlier: He would be retiring at the end of this week’s regional playoffs.

“It’s not like I’ve done everything,” said Azzam, who took over as head coach in 1979 and has won 15 City titles and a City record 932 games. “Every year is different — new kids, new situations, new experiences. It’s one of those things where it’s just time. During the offseason, where we didn’t think we were going to have a season, I didn’t really miss it the way I thought I might. I just think it’s time.”

Azzam got to coach so many great players, from Trevor Ariza to Amir Johnson, and many great teams. He became head coach at age 25 when he was in the same league as Crenshaw and coach Willie West, who’d win 16 City titles and was the winningest coach in City history until Azzam surpassed him with win No. 804 in 2015. Westchester once went 0-10 in league in 1982-83. Can you imagine that? He didn’t win his first championship until 1990-91.

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What I’ll remember most are the Westchester versus Fairfax games. He and former Fairfax coach Harvey Kitani developed the best basketball rivalry anywhere. From the fans to the players, everyone enjoyed the competition and the annual three-game series. There would be two league games, followed by the annual playoff game, whether it was the City final or something else. No games were more exciting or fun to watch.

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Azzam was old school. He loved practices more than games. He loved teaching. Here’s a story from 1991 when he was teaching math and gave one his players a failing grade. The player, James Gray, would go on to lead Westchester to a City title after learning a big lesson. Azzam would require his starters to have a specific grade-point average to start.

Westchester High varsity basketball coach Ed Azzam talks to his team before its game against Fairfax High School in Los Angeles on May 22.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

There certainly were ups and downs. The Comets got put on probation and barred from the playoffs one year after Amir Johnson transferred from Verbum Dei. It was a big mess. The next year, Westchester won the state title in 2005.

Westchester is scheduled to play in a semifinal regional playoff Thursday night, and if the Comets win, Azzam’s final game would be at home Saturday night. The banners on the wall of Westchester’s gym will remind everyone of his legacy for years to come. But he has always said he doesn’t pay attention to the numbers. It’s the players’ accomplishments after they leave high school that matter most.

Once a teacher, always a teacher.

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