There’s no need to hold back in saluting the extraordinary accomplishment of Chino Hills’ 35-0 basketball season that left fans in a frenzy and opponents in awe.
The Huskies rose up to every challenge and met every expectation. They made basketball fun to play, entertaining to watch and compelling to analyze with their special style of dunks, three-point shots and unselfish passes. There will be a continuing discussion about where the Huskies rank among the greatest teams in Southern California history, but there won’t be any debate that their chemistry was second to none.
Even when Chino Hills fell behind by 10 points in the first quarter in Saturday night’s CIFOpen Division state championship game against Concord De La Salle at Sleep Train Arena, there was no panic. This was not going to be Kentucky vs. Wisconsin. At halftime, still trailing by two points, the Huskies simply turned to their leader, point guard Lonzo Ball, who reminded everyone to settle down and play their style.
The resulting final 16 minutes of a 70-50 victory was pure Chino Hills. There were dunks, no-look passes, steals and just crazy plays that put smiles on the faces of fans and even cynical sportswriters.
Seeing it all unfold was Chino Hills Coach Steve Baik, who placed immeasurable trust in his players.
“We knew when the season started we had a chance to do something like this,” he said. “So we said ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s schedule the best teams we can find. Let’s travel all over and get the best competition we can.’ I’m more relieved than anything for it to come to this. As we got closer and closer to this game the pressure kept building and building. You always worry about having that one game where everything goes wrong.”
The first sign of a season to remember came in the summer debut of then-13-year-old LaMelo Ball. Fresh from graduating middle school, he was immediately put into the starting lineup to play alongside brothers Lonzo and LiAngelo and scored 27 points in a 98-51 win over Pasadena Muir last June.
Everyone owes a debt of gratitude to LaVar and Tina Ball. They didn’t play the game that lots of parents are playing — holding back kids for sports reasons so they can enter high school a year older and a year stronger than some peers. They wanted LaMelo to play with his brothers and let him rise or fall on his own merits. And what a decision it was.
There have been great families of three basketball-playing sons — the Holidays, the Hamiltons and now the Balls. But only the Ball brothers got to play together on the same team.
“It’s great to all be playing together and to accomplish this goal together,” Lonzo Ball said. “It’s what we set out to do at the beginning of the season, and we did it.”
Chino Hills was so dominant that in eight playoff games, the closest any opponent came was 20 points. There was a 48-point victory over Santa Ana Mater Dei. The Huskies exceeded 100 points in 18 games this season, tying the state record.
The development of 6-foot-9 freshman Onyeka Okongwu and the play of 6-5 Eli Scott helped pave the way for an unbeaten season. Okongwu’s shot-blocking skills were breathtaking in the final month of the season. Scott’s rebounding and dunks let everyone know he was a college player in the making.
For me, there are two memories I’ll never forget — a pretzel jar and a big yawn.
Sitting at the podium of the Honda Center after the Southern Section Open Division championship game, LaMelo Ball grabbed a large pretzel jar and started eating its contents as reporters waited to ask questions. You could see he really was 14 years old.
And then Saturday night, as thousands of fans waited to see whether Chino Hills could finish an unbeaten season by winning in an NBA arena, LaMelo unleashed a big yawn standing next to his brothers during player introductions. When has anyone so young acted so cool? It was no act. Big games and big moments have become second nature to him, learned from playing in the backyard against his brothers.
Lonzo is moving on to UCLA, but seeing LaMelo grow and mature over the next three years is going to be quite a sight. Chino Hills has four starters back. The winning and the entertaining isn’t going to end anytime soon.