Fahim Hassankhail has to be tough--5-foot-5 guards usually don't survive long in the City Section.
Hassankhail's tenacity shows in many ways. For the last three weeks, he has been playing with a chipped tooth. It was finally fixed earlier this week.
For most of the Northwest Valley Conference season, Hassankhail fasted from sunrise to sunset as part of observing the Islamic holiday of Ramadan. He couldn't drink water until he got home from practice.
"I could swish water in my mouth but I couldn't swallow," said Hassankhail, a senior. "But it just made me thirstier."
Hassankhail draws strength from his family. His family left Soviet-occupied Afghanistan for Pakistan shortly after Hassankhail was born in 1980. Late in 1984, his family arrived in the U.S to start a new life.
"My family lost everything," Hassankhail said.
Despite his size, Hassankhail, 17, has been Birmingham High's starting point guard for the past three seasons. He will play the biggest game of his career today.
Hassankhail will lead the fourth-seeded Braves into the City Section 3-A championship game against seventh-seeded Sylmar at 3 p.m. at Cal State Los Angeles.
A longtime favorite of Brave Coach Al Bennett, he has earned the respect of opponents.
"He is one tough hombre," Grant Coach Howard Levine said.
Hassankhail has persevered through Birmingham's ups and downs over the past four years.
He is the only player on Birmingham's roster who was around for the Braves' last trip to the City final in 1995. Birmingham lost to Franklin, 64-57, as Hassankhail--then a freshman--watched from the bench.
"It was the biggest mistake I made with him," Bennett said. "I kept him on [the varsity] too long and couldn't send him back down to JV."
Hassankhail was willing to sacrifice playing time if it meant playing on the varsity.
"I was happy to be playing on varsity," Hassankhail said. "I was mature enough as a player to handle it."
Hassankhail was starting point guard as a sophomore amid high expectations. Birmingham was a favorite to win the 3-A title, but those hopes quickly were dashed.
Forward Raymond Kizzee was academically ineligible most of the season. David Redmond, a touted junior who was the star of the 1995 playoffs, quit the team in December--briefly returned--and quit again. He eventually transferred to Canoga Park.
Bennett became the center of a national controversy by benching Adam Kopulsky after the junior varsity player dyed his hair pink.
Never in sync, Birmingham sunk, losing in the first round of the playoffs.
"It was a bad year," Hassankhail said. "It got to the point where I thought about transferring but I quickly put that out of my mind. It had to be better next year."
With lower expectations, the Braves flourished. Birmingham had the best record in the Northwest Valley Conference and reached the semifinals before losing by three points to Bell.
This season has been more of the same. Although Birmingham was 5-5 in conference games, the Braves gave North Valley League champion San Fernando its toughest game of the conference season in a 67-63 loss.
Bennett gives most of the credit to Hassankhail. He does not score much--a little more than seven points a game--but Hassankhail leads the region with 8.7 assists and averages three steals.
He can score when needed. When Stanley Fletcher, who averages almost 20 points a game, was benched for being late to a game against Calabasas in December, Hassankhail scored 19 in a Birmingham victory.
One advantage to being small is Hassankhail's ability to drive through a full-court press. He's built so low to the ground most opponents don't even try to steal the ball.
After learning Bennett's methodical offense for two years, Hassankhail relished the new 35-second shot clock. Birmingham played a faster pace most of the season before slowing down in the playoffs. Hassankhail is adept at both styles.
"I've been telling anybody who will listen for the past two years that Fahim is the best point guard in the Valley," Bennett said.
A victory today and more people might listen.