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Fairfax High School’s boys varsity basketball team is the stuff of movies.
The school’s team, the Lions, has a nearly-flawless history of victories, countless championships and students going on to become successful athletes, nationally and internationally.
There is a long roster of famous and successful graduates from the high school, such as Chris Mills, who was starting center for the Lions from 1986 to 1988 and then later went on to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New York Knicks.
Craig Smith played for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Portland Trail Blazers and currently plays professional basketball in Israel. Sean Higgins played for the San Antonio Spurs, New Jersey Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers and later went on to become coach at Edmunds Community College in Edmunds, Washington. The three Shipp brothers, Josh, Joe and Jerren, all passed through Fairfax High School. Joe Shipp played with the Cal Berkeley Bears. Josh Shipp played for the UCLA Bruins and has since gone on to play professionally in Turkey and Germany. Jerren Shipp played for the Arizona State Sun Devils.
The reputation and history that Fairfax High School’s basketball team has for turning out professional and successful athletes is striking, but there is one common denominator since the 1980s that has stood out in the Lions’ success: their coach, Harvey Kitani.
Kitani said that the secret to his basketball team’s success has been simply to coach the kids to be good people, holistically, and attempt at improving all areas of a person’s life.
“I’d like to think that we’re directing and teaching the kids the right things to do to be successful — not only in high school, but to go on into the collegiate level that we are preparing them for,” he said.
Currently, the team ranks 11th nationally, 2nd in the state and No. 1 spot in city and section division positions, according to MaxPreps.com, a national high school sports website.
The team, under the leadership of Kitani, plans to continue to amass victories throughout the season. The season was off to a good start with the first game on Dec. 1 producing a win for the Lions over their rivals at Westminster, 103-44. Since then, they have won every single game — with several of the games showing a wide spread of more than double the winning score. Currently, the team is 18-0.
Kitani has been coaching for the Los Angeles Unified School District for approximately 35 years and has spent 34 of those years at Fairfax High School, much to the appreciation of the school.
Winning every single game since the start of the season, Kitani is optimistic that the season will turn out in their favor. Nothing too special has to be done, nothing out of the ordinary, just consistent playing out of the “formula,” as Kitani referred to it.
“We’re taking it game by game, you know, working with the same formula to keep improving, to keep executing, with the right attitude and demeanor, so that we can improve. I’m really impressed with our team, which we have improved over the summer,” Kitani said.
The team is solid and many players stand out, he said. Babacar Thiombane, standing 6 foot 7 inches, is a junior at Fairfax, playing forward and center for the Lions. Thiombane was born in Los Angeles and his parents came from Senegal, West Africa. His dream is to transfer to a Division 1 four-year university and continue to play basketball.
“I know my parents are proud. I knew going into the school that it had a reputation for its great basketball team, seeing all the team’s basketball championship banners on the walls of the gym. It felt good,” Thiombane said.
He hopes to play for the Lakers after college, he said.
Senior Lindsey Drew, 6 foot 3 inches, is the point guard for the team. He also knew of the team’s history and success prior to attending Fairfax, and especially about the Ships brothers — with his family sharing a similar story.
The Drew family is no stranger to basketball dynasties. His father, Larry Drew, Sr., is a former NBA player and currently is assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers. But basketball didn’t stop there. His entire immediate family has basketball in their blood.
His eldest brother Larry Drew II, who played with UCLA, just signed with the Philadelphia 76ers. Landon Drew, the second eldest, currently plays basketball at California State University, Northridge. The only brother not to go to Fairfax High School was Larry Drew II, who went to William Howard Taft High School in the San Fernando Valley.
But more than anything, Lindsey Drew attributed the success of the Lions over the years, including this season, to Kitani.
“More than anything, it’s Coach Kitani,” Drew said.
In addition to Kitani, Drew mentioned that the team has a good chemistry. They like playing with each other. They genuinely like each other, as people and as teammates, he said. Drew felt confident that the way the season started can be the way it ends: undefeated.
“There’s no reason why we can’t stay undefeated throughout the season,” Drew said.
The Fairfax Lions played the University Wildcats on Jan. 21, Westchester Comets on Jan. 26, Palisades Dolphins on Jan. 28, Hamilton Yankees on Jan. 30, Sierra Canyon Trailblazers on Jan. 31, Los Angeles CES Unicorns on Feb. 2, University Wildcats on Feb. 6, Mater Dei Monarchs on Feb. 7, Venice Gondoliers on Feb. 9, Westchester Comets on Feb. 11 and Palisades Dolphins on Feb.13.
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