Denzel Washington, who is among the world’s most recognizable figures, was sitting in my press-row chair, wearing a New York Yankees cap and talking to a parent last Saturday at Cal State Fullerton.
I walked up, shook his hand and offered to let him stay if he’d only answer a question about his son, Malcolm, the starting point guard for Los Angeles Windward.
He got up, politely dusted off my chair with his hand and headed into the bleachers, sticking with his policy of letting his children do their own talking.
Based on how well 17-year-old Malcolm is turning out, probably the greatest role played by the two-time Academy Award winner has been that of father.
With a selfless attitude and the composure of a brain surgeon, Malcolm has been the glue keeping Windward (28-6) on track to win a state Division V championship. The Wildcats play Alameda St. Joseph Notre Dame (26-8) in the final today at Arco Arena in Sacramento.
“He’s the guy that carries us as a unit,” Coach Miguel Villegas said.
With a 3.5 grade-point average, the 5-foot-9 senior runs the Wildcats as if he were a general. He’s usually the steadying influence during good and bad times.
“My dad kind of instilled that in me,” he said. “We’re Army and they’re my troops and I just have to calm everyone down. Even if I’m not scoring points, I have to keep everyone’s heads together.”
Windward needed a dependable team player to blend in with its trio of standouts -- UCLA-bound Anthony Stover, Michigan-bound Darius Morris and super sophomore Wesley Saunders. Washington fills the role, and if it ever needs changing, Villegas will tell him.
“We have tremendous talent on this team, and I feel as the point guard my job is to do whatever they need,” Washington said. “It takes a lot to balance talent, and I do whatever the coaches tell me to fit in where I can.”
The 339-student school, located between Culver City and Santa Monica, has never won a state championship. But Villegas knew his team would be strong this season, so he put together a challenging schedule that has prepared the Wildcats for pressure situations. Among their opponents were Westchester, a Division I finalist; Rocklin, a Division II finalist, and Torrance Bishop Montgomery, a Division IV finalist.
“The coaches really knew what they were doing,” Washington said. “We played in some premier tournaments, and it really helped us for this playoff run because we’re used to these tough games.”
Watching most of the games has been the elder Washington, who usually shows up wearing a black baseball cap. He finds a way to be at the gym even though he’s filming his latest movie, “The Book of Eli,” which Teaser Trailer describes as, “Civilization has collapsed and clean water has become the prime currency. Washington plays a survivor who must fend off gangs and a brutal tyrant.”
The actor knows his basketball. At halftime last week, when Windward was trailing Pacific Hills, 19-14, Washington was overheard asking his son, “Are you going to press?” Sure enough, Windward came out in a full-court press and rallied for a 52-40 victory.
In Los Angeles, it’s not unusual to find the sons of Hollywood celebrities playing high school sports. In the 1980s, Ben Ford, the son of actor Harrison Ford, was a top baseball player. The sons of actor Joseph Campanella were basketball and baseball players at Encino Crespi. Kelly Dugan, the son of director Dennis Dugan, is a baseball player at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame. Washington’s oldest son, John David, was a running back at North Hollywood Campbell Hall.
But seeing the man in person who has entertained so many in such films as “Training Day” and “Remember the Titans” remains a bit of a shock.
The question I would have asked him was, “How come you seem to enjoy watching high school sports so much?”
His son gave me the answer, saying, “I call him a struggling athlete. He played basketball at the college level. And he’s really just a regular guy. He comes to all the games, and he’s a regular dad, and I really appreciate his support, and I think the team does as well.”
If anyone wonders about Denzel’s influence, consider what his son says is rewarding about playing basketball.
“I find joy in doing whatever my team needs to win,” Malcolm said.