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The 2019 edition of Westchester-Fairfax rivalry series finally arrives

The 2019 edition of Westchester-Fairfax rivalry series finally arrives
Fairfax's Ethan Anderson dunks against Palisades on Thursday. (Steve Galluzzo / For the Times)

The list of basketball players who have participated in a Fairfax-Westchester rivalry game reads like a who’s who of distinguished former high school, college and NBA players from City Section history.

From Fairfax, there’s Solomon Hill, Josh and Jerren Shipp, Craig Smith, Evan Burns, Jamal Boykin, Renardo Sidney and Chace Stanback. From Westchester, there’s Trevor Ariza, Amir Johnson, Hassan Adams, Bobby Brown, Dane Suttle Jr., Dwayne Polee Jr., Jason Hart and Tony Bland.

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Former Fairfax coach Harvey Kitani remembers getting to school on game day at 6:15 a.m. and being so fired up he was ready by 7 a.m. even though the game didn’t start for 12 hours.

“The atmosphere is really amazing,” he said.

Singer Chris Brown showed up in the middle of the game at Fairfax in 2016, causing fans to stand and scream. Sitting six seats down was Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a big Fairfax fan who once brought Steve Nash to a game.

Thanks to the settlement of the teachers’ strike, Round 1 of the annual Fairfax vs. Westchester rivalry series will take place at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Westchester, followed by Round 2 at Fairfax on Jan. 31. Round 3 could come in the City Section Open Division championship game on Feb. 23 at L.A. Southwest College.

This season’s games are even more important since both teams are 18-1 and among the best teams in the state. Westchester, a 14-time City champion, will have held two practices since the teachers’ strike ended. Fairfax practiced on Wednesday and defeated Palisades 67-56 on Thursday in its first game since Jan. 12. Both teams are not in the kind of physical condition they want to be.

“We’re rusty and out of shape,” Fairfax coach Steve Baik said. “It’s not the way you want to be before Westchester.”

Perhaps the adrenaline rush of a large crowd will give a boost to players from both teams. They can’t wait to step onto the court and experience the tradition few ever forget.

“It’s completely different than any game I’ve played in,” Westchester All-City guard Jordan Brinson said. “There’s so many people and you don’t want to do badly.”

“It’s the most exciting game of the year,” Fairfax guard Robert McRae said.

Last season, the two teams split their league meetings and Westchester won in the City final by 10 points. Fairfax had trouble dealing with Westchester’s 6-foot-6 Kaelen Allen. It’s the same challenge again, because Allen is back, slimmed down but stronger than ever.

Fairfax will need a solid game from center Daylen Williams, the son of former Crenshaw great John Williams. How well he does rebounding and staying out of foul trouble will be watched closely. To counter Allen, look for Fairfax to increase its defensive pressure full court.

Westchester coach Ed Azzam, the City Section’s winningest coach with more than 800 victories, enjoys the matchup.

“The emotions of the game will be high,” he said.

Baik knows all about big-time atmospheres. He was the head coach of Chino Hills’ 35-0 team in 2016 led by the Ball brothers.

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“There’s a lot of similarities and a lot of uniqueness with the Fairfax-Westchester rivalry,” he said. “The similarities are every possession is on pins and needles. The uniqueness is the longevity of the rivalry, with players’ kids playing in the game and how they value it year after year, game after game.”

Baik has learned that the Westchester game means plenty but also must be used as a stepping stone.

“Playing against Westchester is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “We’re hoping to see them three times, not one or two. We’re all going to get a feel for each other, then make adjustments, then make more adjustments the next time.”

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