Legendary former Fairfax coach Harvey Kitani was there, the signature glasses back, the trademark black mustache now turned pepper grey. Trevor Ariza was there, Westchester’s pride and joy turned NBA champion, lounging in an open room behind the baseline.
Pieces, memories of a past era in a time-honored rivalry floated around Westchester’s gym Wednesday night for the latest installment of Fairfax-Westchester boys’ basketball. Pieces of an era when the entire middle section would be filled with college coaches. When the gym was packed so full in 2002 that moisture dripped from the walls.
But to Solomon Hill, the former Fairfax star and NBA forward sitting and watching with his young son, that era is gone —washed away by private-school dominance in the Southland.
“Sad to say,” Hill said when asked how the rivalry can remain, “but it won’t.”
Try telling that to the players who flung trash talk and clawed for loose balls and swatted away shots as a still-lively Westchester gym rocked in the fourth quarter. And after a dizzying Fairfax defensive sequence, a late tip by Westchester’s Michael Hill fell a second too late after the final buzzer, Lions players roaring with joy in sealing a 55-54 win.
“Many of the private schools have taken the top players, and that’s fine,” said Fairfax’s Romello McRae, whose brother Robert McRae graduated from Fairfax hoops in 2019. “But we want to still show that L.A. City basketball is still one of the top basketball places to be, and that’s the goal with this rivalry.”
Rows of banners hang at the top of the back wall in Westchester’s gym, preserving a run of dominance — 15 City championships — unlike any other team in City Section basketball history. Fairfax has long been the Comets’ running mate, the two each with three titles since the Open Division was introduced. Kitani and longtime Westchester coach Ed Azzam oversaw a rivalry that grew, as Hill said, as both teams realized they were each other’s best and often only competition in the City Section.
Both Kitani and Azzam have moved on, though, longtime assistants Dewitt Cotton and Jamal Hartwell now in their place. And Kitani was there Wednesday night, he said, to see Hartwell’s first varsity game coaching against Westchester.
“I wanted to be here, and just be with him,” Kitani said.
Fairfax got out and running early, program mainstay David Mack darting and dishing to give the Lions a first-quarter lead. Westchester shut down the Lions in the next two quarters, though, as senior Jonathan Choyce splashed his third three of the night to give the Comets a 47-42 lead.
Down 54-48 with two minutes to play and energy in the away stands swelling, Fairfax’s Sebastian Ikolo cashed in free throw after free throw to give the Lions a one-point edge with seconds remaining. A three by Hill flew long, and Fairfax hounded Westchester just long enough for the buzzer to sound, Hartwell fist-pumping and slapping Ikolo’s hand.
“That’s what Fairfax do!” the first-year coach yelled. “That’s what Fairfax do.”