Story by RONNIE FLORES | Photos by JAMES K. LEASH
The scene was Haas Pavilion for the 2015 CIF boys basketball state championships. Chino Hills was in a dogfight with a tough senior bunch from San Ramon Valley-Danville. The Div. I state title hung in the balance.
The game was tight when Chino Hills’ Lonzo Ball heard the whistle. There was a hush over the crowd; Ball kept running towards his bench, as if he didn’t hear the referees’ whistle or the play didn’t happen because he knew what it meant. The junior guard was out of the game — and it was going to be an uphill battle for his teammates to pull the game out.
Without its leader, Chino Hills struggled and eventually fell to the tough East Bay Athletic League club, 79-71, in two overtimes. It was a successful campaign, but a struggle for the Huskies to win 24 games on the court because of transfers ruled ineligible, games that had to be forfeited and the freak death of Nnamdi Okongwu in Summer 2014. He was supposed to be the senior anchor in the middle, but his passing due to a skateboarding accident rocked the Chino Hills community.
“I never wanted to experience that feeling again,” Ball said of the helplessness in not being able to control the game’s outcome. “I didn’t say much, but everyone knew the mission.”
Chino Hills came back in 2015-16 focused behind its senior leader and a better supporting cast. The youngest Ball brother, La’Melo Ball, joined Lonzo and middle brother Li’Angelo in the starting lineup as a 14-year old flashy freshman guard. Junior forward Eli Scott was now eligible, and Okongwu’s younger brother, Onyeka, was another 14-year old talented and wise beyond his years.
Chino Hills edged Sierra Canyon-Chatsworth as the preseason No. 1 team in the state by Cal-Hi Sports and opened up No. 11 in the FAB 50 National Rankings. The Huskies were talented and motivated, but no one forecasted what came next.
The team rolled to one victory after another, including a win over three-time defending FAB 50 champion Montverde Academy-Montverde (Fla.) en route to winning the City of Palms Tournament in Florida.
As the calendar turned to 2016, cameras and media attention followed at every turn. After Chino Hills defeated Bishop Montgomery-Torrance in a highly-anticipated state No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown, the team turned into a local phenomenon and Lonzo Ball reached Rock Star status. After that win, longtime followers of the state’s basketball scene had a feeling Chino Hills just might do it.
“It” was an undefeated mythical national championship season. By the playoffs, “RUN GMZ” (an acronym for RUN Gelo-Melo-Zo) was completely dominant against the best competition California had to offer in the Southern Section and CIF Open Division regional playoffs. The state title game versus De La Salle-Concord felt like a coronation, and when it was all over, The Huskies finished 35-0 as California’s first mythical national champion since a Tyson Chandler-led Dominguez-Compton team in 1999-00.
Although not manifested in the same fashion when Lonzo Ball vowed not to lose again in a Chino Hills uniform, there’s plenty of motivation for the four returning starters. They don’t formally discuss it, but the 2016-17 team wants to show the basketball community it can win without Zo and with a new head coach.
Steve Baik stepped down in the offseason to take the job at L.A. City Section power Fairfax and was replaced by former assistant Stephan Gilling. The former Long Beach State player has to find a way to successfully replace 23.9 points per game, 11.3 rebounds, 11.7 assists, 5.1 steals, 2 blocks, and a new state record 25 triple-doubles by a point guard who earned every credible national player of the year honor. It’s a daunting task, but Gilling is confident it can be done because of the increased physicality of the returnees and a deeper bench.
“It’s the same motivation and nearly the same goal — to repeat and go undefeated,” said 6-foot-8 junior Andre Ball, who is the new fifth starter and the first cousin of the two brothers who remain. “We’re not paying attention to what people are saying. We’re going to stay humble, go out and do what we do. Just like last year.”
What people are saying is the show won’t be on the marquee at the end of the season.
Chino Hills opens the season ranked No. 3 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports, behind Bishop Montgomery, which returns all five starters, and Sierra Canyon, which returns four and adds 6-foot-10 Marvin Bagley III to the lineup. Gilling thinks his team will be just fine in the end, although he admits there was an adjustment period his team dealt with in the off-season.
“Lonzo was great…he was our engine,” Gilling said. “We struggled with it (realizing he wasn’t there) in the summer, but we got over it quick. Gelo stepped up with that mindset that next year it’s his team and he has to be a leader. Our four returners are bigger and stronger than last year.”
Andre Ball, who was injured half of last season and never found his groove in the rotation, sees another factor that will play in Chino Hills’ favor – more playing time to go around. That, he said, has led to more spirited practices.
Okongwu, last year’s Cal-Hi Sports State Freshman of the Year, agreed with that assessment. He notices player’s desire to start and a hunger for playing time.
Last season, Chino Hills rarely substituted. Lonzo Ball successfully played with four fouls on many occasions, while Okongwu often battled Div. I-bound big men three years older and was rarely in foul trouble. The 18 100-point games (which tied a state record according to Cal-Hi Sports), 75-foot passes and highlight dunks were great, but the discipline displayed with two 14-year-old starters was an underrated aspect of Chino Hills’ success.
This team won’t be on a tightrope and Gilling believes Gelo Ball will have some 50-point games as the offensive focal point. Melo Ball is three inches taller, while Scott has improved his perimeter game. Add in Okongwu’s selfless approach, sparkplug Ofure Ujadughele, a 6-foot-3 junior transfer from Millikan-Long Beach, Andre Ball’s increased confidence and expected production, and the contributions of role players such as 5-foot-9 sophomore Phaquon Davis, and it’s apparent this team will win tons of games.
In fact, it wouldn’t be all that shocking to see the Huskies repeat as CIF Open Division champs. The games will still be faced-paced and exciting, but wins will come with less reliance on a single player.
“I think they will be more physical this year because Eli, Gelo, Dre and O are all much bigger and stronger,” Baik said after watching them during fall leagues. “Andre Ball and the transfer from Millikan (Ofure) makes them really deep. Ofure is really good.”
Okongwu is as blunt in summing up the 2016-17 Huskies as he is graceful and humble in his spirited approach to the game. As he learned off the court over the past two years, life goes on — and so will this new-look Chino Hills team.
“We just lost one player,” he said. “One player can’t change the entire makeup of a team. We’re all Div. I players, we just have to do more work and we’ll be perfectly fine.”
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