After the two CIF Southern Section Open Division semifinals played on Friday at USC’s Galen Center attracted a sellout crowd of more than 10,000, we thought it was a good time to go through a recollection of what we believe are the biggest crowds to have watched high school basketball in state history.
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That sure was great to see such a big turnout of Southern California basketball fans at this weekend’s CIF Southern Section Open Division doubleheader that was played at USC’s Galen Center. It brought together the top four ranked teams in the state that also have been among the top 15 ranked teams in the nation and it’s not a stretch to say that if an even bigger venue had been used that more than 10,258 would have come through the gates.
It doesn’t look like the CIF state office is going to try to stage something similar for its Southern California Open Division semifinals — which very well likely would match the winner of next Saturday’s CIFSS Open Division championship between Mater Dei of Santa Ana and Bishop Montgomery of Torrance against likely No. 4 seed Chino Hills and then the loser of that game against likely No. 3 seed Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth — but when the two winners collide on March 18 at Long Beach State’s The Walter Pyramid, that’s going to be one tough ticket. The Pyramid doesn’t hold close to 10,282. It’s more like 5,000.
Of course, it’s not the highly ranked teams that causes that much excitement. There’s been an element of that in many CIF Southern Section championships and in many CIF state championships. No, what tends to bring in the crowds are transformational players or players who simply have captured the imagination of basketball fans in general.
The players that primarily helped to bring in all the fans for this week’s doubleheader are La’Melo Ball of Chino Hills (the sophomore who recently scored 92 points in game), Li’Angelo Ball (La’Melo’s older brother), 6-foot-11 junior Marvin Bagley of Sierra Canyon (generally considered the No. 1 junior in the nation) and 7-foot-2 junior Bol Bol of Mater Dei (a recent transfer from the Kansas City area and the son of former NBA giant Manute Bol).
By transformational players, the main four that come to mind are Jason Kidd of Alameda St. Joseph in the early 1990s, Bill Cartwright of Elk Grove in 1974-75, Cheryl Miller of Riverside Poly in 1982 and when a kid from Ohio, LeBron James, played a game at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion in 2003. Lonzo Ball of last year’s Chino Hills team also may be considered in that same vein someday. And we’re not saying those four are necessarily the best four players the state has seen in recent years — including the three MVP candidates in the NBA this season (James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard) — but when they were in high school there was something special about Kidd, Cartwright, Miller and James that energized fans.
The largest crowd to ever witness a CIF state final was at Sacramento’s ARCO Arena in 1992. The attendance for the day (six games were played) was 22,819, but it has been estimated that well more than 12,000 were in the building for the Division I boys game that was between Mater Dei and St. Joseph of Alameda. The fans came to see if Kidd, St. Joe’s record-breaking point guard, could lead his team to a second straight state title. He did and he put on a show, at one point having 32 points at the end of the third quarter to match Mater Dei’s team total.
As Cartwright was concluding his 1975 season at Elk Grove in the old Tournament of Champions played at the Oakland Coliseum (now known as Oracle Arena), he didn’t help bring in an average of 10,000 fans for one night but would you believe three nights in a row? They came the first night to see the first big man who could really shoot and he scored 53 points. That only served to generate even more interest in him and the tournament. Elk Grove defeated a highly regarded Berkeley team in the final on a Saturday night with Cartwright scoring 34.
The Oakland Coliseum also was the site of the 1982 CIF state finals, which coincidentally was the first year that the CIF Southern Section sent its title teams into the CIF state playoffs. The CIF lucked out because on the girls side there was a player in Miller who earlier in the season had scored 105 points in one game and was said to be the best girls player anyone had ever seen. Like Cartwright seven years earlier, she didn’t disappoint, either. Before an estimated crowd of 12,000, super Cheryl led Riverside Poly past Los Gatos 77-44 and scored 41 points.
LeBron’s outing against Mater Dei at Pauley Pavilion in the Pangos Dream Classic drew an announced attendance of 12,819. This was on MLK weekend and even though the game was on ESPN it didn’t deter fans from going. It was just a few months later when he was the first pick overall in the NBA Draft, which already was being predicted before LeBron came to Los Angeles for that game.
There also were other games at the Oakland TOC that brought in huge crowds. In the 1970 TOC, Berkeley was unbeaten and had arguably the best team in Bay Area history up to that point and that helped draw 33,669 over three back-to-back nights, including a sellout of the Coliseum (13,000 capacity in those days) for a semifinal matchup against Oakland champion Castlemont. Then in 1980, Castlemont got the home folks fired up again with a first-round upset in the TOC of L.A. City champion Crenshaw (which ha0d future MLB star Darryl Strawberry playing) and got a matchup with Oakland champion Fremont in the final. The crowd for that game was estimated at 11,000.
So could this weekend’s doubleheader be a sign of more to come? The quick answer is yes because barring transfers La’Melo will still be at Chino Hills next season as will Bagley at Sierra Canyon and Bol Bol at Mater Dei. All three teams have many other top players returning as well. In fact, if those three teams don’t go to the same major tournaments in December of next season and then continue to avoid each other until next season’s playoffs while beating other nationally ranked opponents, the dream scenario for the CIFSS is that they’re all unbeaten and all sitting at No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 3 in national polls. The only difference is that Bishop Montgomery, in comparison, will be rebuilding after losing its seniors from this year’s team.
Since only one team from the south each season is able to head to the CIF state finals in Sacramento in the Open Division, it would have to be a special set of circumstances for a massive crowd to come. It was almost the case when Mater Dei with Stanley Johnson played Archbishop Mitty with Aaron Gordon in the 2013 Open Division state final, which also was the first-ever Open Division state final. While both players were great, they didn’t fire up the level of interest among more casual fans that Lonzo and the Ball brothers have been at the last two seasons.
If the next Jason Kidd or Bill Cartwright from the north, however, happens to be from the Sacramento area and there’s a similar hyped player from the south and they happen to meet in an Open Division state final, the Golden 1 Center has the space to accommodate the biggest crowd we’ve ever seen.
It’s always fun to dream.