Twin-Engine Props

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They call Alex Gelbard "Gelbows," a nickname born of his propensity to protrude a pointy joint whenever an opponent drives the lane.

Jason Segel answers to "Doctor Dunk," although he craves more than the 15 minutes of fame he received during an East Coast slam dunk contest.

And Abed Abusaleh, a.k.a. "Air-Ball Abed," is determined to sink a three-point shot, even if it means hurling enough bricks to build a small fire station.

Who are these colorful characters? They're among the other guys on the Harvard-Westlake High basketball team, players with catchy cognomens, surnames other than Collins and contributions overshadowed but not to be underestimated.

"They're not just along for the ride," Harvard Coach Greg Hilliard said.

This is their team too. And it's a team on a roll.

Harvard (25-2) will defend its Southern Section Division III-A championship at 9:30 a.m. today against Morningside (20-8) at the Pond in Anaheim. As expected, twins Jason (6 feet 11) and Jarron (6-10) Collins, the tallest and most-talented high school basketball tandem in the region, have been the centers of attention this season.

But unlike the Collinses, who next season figure to face a college recruiting blitz the likes of which few high school players have seen, members of the Wolverines' supporting cast maintain a high level of productivity and keep a low profile.

"They deserve all the attention they get," Gelbard, a forward and the team's only senior starter, said of the twins. "They're humble with all the success they've had, they're incredible players and it's a great opportunity for everybody to be able to play with them. But the other teams don't realize what the other players on our team are capable of."

Harvard defeated Duarte, 82-56, in a semifinal last week. While Jason (17 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks) and Jarron (17 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists) were their usual unstoppable selves, Gelbard scored 14 points, guard Ryan Smiley scored 16 and sixth man Rico Cabrera chipped in with 14.

Their efforts were needed, considering point guard Leo Da Costa suffered an ankle sprain in the opening minutes and did not return.

But Da Costa is the first to admit his absence would not hinder Harvard the way, say, the departure of Jason or Jarron would.

"Without them, we wouldn't be where we are," Da Costa said. "They're great players and great to be around."

All agree. But the team has others. And they include:

* Segel. The 6-4 junior forward is seventh man and self-appointed court jester.

"I'm not nearly as skilled a basketball player as some of the other guys," Segel says. "But I have a lot of bravado."

Not to mention a made-for-the-highlight-reels dunk.

During Harvard's two-week East Coast trip in December, Segel wowed a Florida crowd with a two-handed slam made with the front of his jersey pulled over his head. Before the dunk, Segel stood poised, calling for silence with outstretched arms. After the dunk, he dove headfirst into the stands.

"He put on an absolute show," Da Costa said.

Segel also keeps the team loose with impressions of everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Kermit the Frog. He even does Hilliard.

"You spend five minutes around Jason and he'll come up with a pretty good impression of you," Abusaleh said.

An aspiring actor, Segel has dabbled in bit parts and studied in England. After the season, Segel is scheduled to begin rehearsals for a school production in which he will deliver a 22-minute soliloquy on stage.

"I love getting up in front of people," he says.

His most memorable moment this season? The dunk, of course. Not because he made it but because Jarron allowed him to. Jarron qualified for the competition ahead of Segel but deferred to his teammate.

"He knew it was something important to me, so he stepped back and let me do it," Segel said. "I appreciated that."

* Da Costa. The 6-1 junior point guard is the son of Paulhino Da Costa, a Brazilian percussionist and respected session musician whose credits include work with Michael Jackson and Al Jarreau.

But music doesn't run through Da Costa as much as basketball does. "I play a little bit of piano," he says.

Da Costa plays the point better, averaging a team-high four assists. "My job is to get everyone involved and pass the ball as much as possible," Da Costa said.

Da Costa also is the best dancer on the team, according to Smiley. But the title might be up for grabs at the moment. Da Costa's ankle remains sore and he is questionable for the game today.

* Abusaleh. The 6-2 senior guard, a standout running back on the football team, plays sparingly, averaging 0.2 points and 0.2 rebounds.

Abusaleh was recruited as a football player by several Ivy League schools and will attend Columbia in the fall.

Why basketball?

"I made the decision I was going to compete for a spot on this team," he says. "I thought if I worked hard I could be sixth or seventh man. But just because I didn't make it doesn't mean I don't want to be a part of this team. I'm not a quitter."

That much is evident by his persistence at three-point shooting. Abusaleh's accuracy is astounding during practice. "He'll make eight or nine in a row," Hilliard said.

But he has failed to make a three-pointer during a game. Hilliard has turned Abusaleh loose during late-season games in which victory was assured, but Abusaleh has been antsy.

"In practice, I can't miss," Abusaleh says. "You put Jason or Jarron on me and I still make them. In a game, my knees start shaking and the basket starts moving."

Abusaleh even tried wearing his practice jersey beneath his game jersey. He estimates he's had 14 attempts, about four of which have failed to draw iron.

"We went to the St. Francis tournament and everyone thought my name was 'Air Ball,' " Abusaleh says. "Every time I touched the ball, they would start chanting."

To his credit, Abusaleh hasn't lost his sense of humor.

"My role on the team is as a practice player, to push guys," he says. "I realize we gotta win. But at the same time, we might get nervous and too uptight. I provide comic relief."

* Smiley. The 6-3 junior guard y was promoted from the junior varsity during the playoffs last season and assumed a starting role this season. A good perimeter shooter, he averages 8.3 points.

"My job is to play strong defense, feed the ball in to Jason and Jarron and make their jobs a little bit easier," Smiley said.

Life will be easier at home for Smiley if the Wolverines win a state championship. Smiley's twin sister, Stacie, was a member of the school's state-champion Division III volleyball team last fall.

"We're very competitive," Smiley said. "She'll bring it to my attention that she has a state championship and I don't. But our opportunity hasn't come yet."

A state title will mean a lot. But memories of playing with the Collinses will last a lifetime. "It's gone beyond [being] basketball players," Smiley said. "I'll be able to say not only did I play basketball with them but I was friends with them."

* Gelbard. The 6-4 senior forward, sixth man last season, has been in the thick of things for some time at Harvard.

Gelbard averages 8.3 points and six rebounds, but the physical aspect of the game is what he enjoys most. His idol is former Laker Kurt Rambis.

"My role on the team is to do all the little things that need to get done," Gelbard said.

That means placing himself in harm's way when an opponent dribbles toward the basket. Or is the opponent in harm's way?

"Gelbard has given me a fat lip, two dead legs, an elbow to the chest . . .," Abusaleh says.

No one can recall who tagged Gelbard "Gelbows," but the word has come to have a double meaning: a nickname for Gelbard and for the injuries players receive when colliding with him in practice.

Says Da Costa: "I got taken out by Alex one day. I caught an elbow in the back of the neck and I was on the floor."

Gelbard bristles at comparisons to controversial players such as Bill Laimbeer or other so-called enforcers.

"Being physical is part of basketball," Gelbard says. "There's a fine line that separates that from being a dirty player and I'm not a dirty player. As I've gotten older and progressed as a player, I've added finesse to my game. People understate the importance of [being physical]."

His remarks draw a smile from Da Costa.

"If this [story] has an 'Elbows,' 'Goon' spin on it," Gelbard says, "I'm going to be [angry]."

These "other guys" take their work seriously.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°