For Dwayne Polee Jr., basketball wasn’t always a slam dunk

Dwayne Polee Jr., son of a high school basketball legend, admired the way his idol effortlessly vaulted into the air. He revered the grace and precision in his moves. He was awed by his hang time.

The boy was still in grade school when his destiny seemed clear. He turned to his father and told him that he wanted to be just like ... skateboarding sensation Tony Hawk.

Dwayne Sr. should have seen it coming.

Little Dwayne had been taken to NBA All-Star games in part because his uncle, Larry Kenon, had spent seven seasons in the league. But the kid was usually asleep by halftime. Not even the dunk contest could rouse him.

“If I find something that’s not really interesting,” Dwayne Jr. said, “then I’ll just fall asleep.”

Basketball didn’t excite him until middle school. A friend asked Polee if he wanted to join the friend’s club team, and when Polee dunked less than a year later, it was the skateboarding equivalent of landing a 360-degree inward heel flip. He was hooked.

Six years after he turned in his skateboard for squeaky sneakers, the Westchester senior is the most dynamic high school player in Los Angeles, triggering comparisons to the way his father used to take over a game — and the space above the rim.

“His hang time is so up there,” Santa Ana Mater Dei High Coach Gary McKnight, who briefly coached the father, said of the son. “I mean, it’s not natural how high he can jump and how long he can hang in the air.”

As players, the Polees have more in common than a jaw-dropping vertical leap. The son this week was selected Los Angeles City Section player of the year, 29 years after his dad won the same award at Manual Arts. The only other father-son tandem to win the award are Marques and Kris Johnson of Crenshaw.

The 6-foot-7 Polee will try to two-up his father Saturday night at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield when he leads Westchester (31-3) in its bid for a second consecutive Division I state title against Newark Memorial (30-4).

“It’s weird looking at him, how he has developed and how far he has come,” said Dwayne Sr., who scored 43 points in a City title game but never played for a state championship. “He jumps way higher than me.”

Known for relentless defense and hustle, Dwayne Sr. played one year at Nevada Las Vegas and starred for three seasons at Pepperdine. The Clippers took him in the third round of the 1986 NBA draft, but he played in only one game, making one of four shots in six minutes. He then briefly played pro ball overseas before returning to Southern California to coach at Los Angeles Southwest College and work in children’s services.

Dwayne Jr. can be just as spectacular as his father, as he was in scoring 16 points in the second half of Westchester’s 71-63 victory over Mater Dei in the Southern California regional championship last week on an array of floaters, dunks and layups.

Unpolished athletic ability enabled Dwayne Jr. to make the Westchester varsity as a freshman, one of only five or so ninth-graders to play for Coach Ed Azzam since 1985. By that time, he had given up skateboarding because of growing pains in his knees.

Though he was an athletic marvel who was a threat to do something spectacular on the fast break or any time a ball came off the rim, there were plenty of holes in his game.

He heard the doubts, even through the end of last summer.

“They were saying he was just a dunker and his game hadn’t really improved,” his father recalled.

So Dwayne Jr. put in hour after hour at the Galen Center, where his father works as USC’s director of basketball operations. He tweaked his game, studying defenses and stepping out to shoot three-pointers.

Suddenly, he wasn’t so one-dimensional anymore.

“Now, people actually have to guard him,” Westchester guard Kareem Jamar said of his teammate, who is averaging 20 points, nine rebounds and two blocks per game. “They can’t just back up and sag off.”

Azzam said Polee is not a complete player yet, but he’s getting there fast. “He’s made tremendous strides in understanding the defense, where to be, blocking out, taking charges, doing a lot of the little things that he never, ever was concerned about doing,” the coach said.

Polee committed to playing for USC before his first high school game, but that, like those skateboarding plans, has changed. The Trojans’ new coaching staff is not recruiting him, and Dwayne Jr. said UNLV, New Mexico and Georgia are pursuing him the hardest.

“If opportunity calls somewhere else, then it is what it is,” Dwayne Jr. said. “It’s a blessing in disguise, I guess.”