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Returning in 2015, Watts Summer Games' powerful legacy endures

High School SportsSportsBasketballFather's Day
Watts Summer Games' legacy is clear: It has educated teens in L.A. about getting along with different people
Watts Summer Games misses a beat in 2014, will be back in 2015, but its powerful legacy endures

Anyone who has played high school basketball in Los Angeles over the past 40 years probably participated in or was influenced in some little way by the Watts Summer Games, a sports tournament that brought together teenagers, coaches and fans from diverse ethnic backgrounds and different neighborhoods while teaching tolerance and sportsmanship.

It was launched in 1968 as the Watts Junior Olympics in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots, then became the Watts Summer Games a year later run by the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce. The event featured a variety of sports, but basketball always took center stage.

"L.A. City basketball was outstanding and inner city basketball was phenomenal," Westchester Coach Ed Azzam said.

The 1970s and 1980s were a time when Verbum Dei, Crenshaw, Dorsey and Jordan were basketball powerhouses. It was also a time neighborhoods didn't interact very often. Having teams come to high schools in Watts was a powerful educational experience for many teenagers.

"The fear of playing inner city teams was somewhat eliminated," said Steve Miller, who coached at Fairfax in the 1970s and later at North Hollywood.

I can still remember as a high school basketball manager at Sun Valley Poly in the 1970s traveling to a game in Watts. Yes, playing an inner city team meant getting routed, but I wanted that Watts Summer Games T-shirt that was given to every player and coach who participated.

There were handshakes before games, along with a talk about sportsmanship. Whatever was happening in the world that day and whatever prejudices anyone had were forgotten for at least one hour. And maybe some minds were changed forever.

It's 2014, and Los Angeles has changed, with schools and neighborhoods more diverse. The world has changed, with the United States having its first African American president. Sports opportunities have changed, with tournaments, camps and competitions taking over seemingly every weekend of the summer.

In recent years, the quality of the basketball competition in the Watts Summer Games deteriorated. Coaches chose other tournaments to spend their Father's Day weekend.

In April, the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce announced it had canceled this year's Watts Summer Games. It required too many volunteers to run. But a spokesman for the board of directors said Wednesday that the Watts Summer Games will return next year under the guidance of a still unnamed for-profit organization that promises to uphold the standards and principles of the original event.

Its legacy is clear. The Watts Summer Games have done more to educate teenagers in Los Angeles about getting along with people from different ethnic backgrounds than many federal or state programs.

More than 300,000 athletes have participated in the Watts Summer Games through the years. That's a lot of T-shirts that were printed, passed out and cherished.

"I liked the original premise to bring people together," Azzam said. "Any time you can bring kids together and give them a history lesson on what people had to go through to get where you are now, it's a good thing."

Few people will probably remember which teams won the Watts Summer Games championship trophy through the years, but anyone who played in the event will understand how it changed people's perceptions and helped introduce new ways of thinking every summer on Father's Day weekend.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATSondheimer

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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