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Exclusive high school club: 7-foot centers are on the rise

Hillcrest's Dennis Evans (left) goes against Los Altos' Jazz Gardner in a rare encounter of 7-footers.
Hillcrest’s Dennis Evans (left) jumps center against Los Altos’ Jazz Gardner in a rare encounter of 7-footers on Saturday at Colony High in Ontario.
(Craig Weston)

One man got on his knees to place the measuring tape on the ground. Another man stood on a stool to extend the tape to a wooden beam. This was the moment Jazz Gardner of Hacienda Heights Los Altos High would learn if he had joined a select club — the 7-foot-tall club.

“Oh my God — he’s 7,” his mother, Aude, said while holding a video camera.

“I’m 7, I’m 7,” Jazz responded excitedly.

In the last 50 years of Southern California high school basketball, the number of 7-footers is fewer than a dozen.

You have to start with Paul Mokeski of Encino Crespi in 1975, followed by Stuart Gray of Granada Hills Kennedy, a McDonald’s All-American in 1981. There was Brad Wright from Los Angeles Daniel Murphy, Jason Collins from Studio City Harvard-Westlake, Tyson Chandler from Compton Dominguez, Thomas Welsh from Los Angeles Loyola, Bol Bol from Santa Ana Mater Dei and Christian Koloko
and Harold Yu from Chatsworth Sierra Canyon.

There have been many outstanding 6-11 players and even some players who were listed in high school at 7 feet but later found to be an inch shorter once they were measured in college or the NBA. And some became 7-footers later on, such as Mark Eaton, who grew to 7-5 after leaving high school as a 6-11 water polo player at Westminster in 1975.

The 7-foot club is unique, which makes this season so intriguing. There are three active 7-footers playing basketball in the Southland — Gardner, 7-1 Dennis Evans of Riverside Hillcrest and 7-2 Sidy Diallo of Santa Fe Springs St. Paul. A fourth 7-footer, sophomore Majok Chuol of Sierra Canyon, is waiting to become eligible. There is also senior James Agany of Irvine Crean Lutheran, who is listed on various rosters as 6-11 or 7-0.

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Any high school coach who has had a 7-footer knows they are as valuable as having a gold coin.

“It’s a blessing,” Hillcrest coach Jackson Wood said. “It feels like cheating. We can do so many different things defensively with him. He just controls everything.”

Evans, a junior, set a school record earlier this month with 16 blocks. He grew up in the high desert before moving to Riverside. His mother is 5-10 and father is 6-10. He said he found out he was 7 feet during a doctor’s checkup his freshman year. He had a growth spurt in middle school, going from 6-5 to 6-10 in a year’s time.

Like all 7-footers, a major challenge is dealing with people who always want to stare when they see someone so tall.

“I just try to take it kindly,” Evans said. “I take it more as a compliment than an insult and there’s nothing wrong with taking a few seconds to talk to them.”

Said Diallo: “It’s fun, man. Wherever you go, people like to get to know you and want to take pictures with you. It’s just fun to be tall.”

Evans and Gardner got to face each other for the first time on Saturday in the State Preview Classic at Ontario Colony. Gardner had 18 points in Los Altos’ 61-50 victory. Evans contributed 13 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. Twice Evans rejected Gardner’s shots, something few have done. It was a lesson learned for the next level.

Gardner learned he reached 7 feet before his sophomore season while attending a training session in Santa Barbara. His father, Jelani, was a standout 6-6 guard at Bellflower St. John Bosco. His mother is from France and stands 5-6.

“It’s just a blessing from God,” Gardner said of his size. “I wasn’t looking at my mom and dad, ‘I’m supposed to be 7 feet.’ I appreciate it and I’m going to maximize it for my family. It was a good thing to happen in my life. It gave me a stamp.”

Gardner has been training to go beyond using his height as an advantage. He can shoot threes, dribble like a guard and make free throws. He has five triple-doubles this season in terms of points, rebounds and blocked shots.

St. Paul's 7-2 Sidy Diallo towers over an opponent.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Diallo, a senior, said he was a soccer player living in Senegal when a basketball coach convinced him to try the sport. He moved to the United States and was playing at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., and in Arizona before arriving at St. Paul. He knows four languages and loves blocking shots. He was injured last season.

“He makes high school kids alter so many shots,” St. Paul coach Patrick Roy said. “If you can control rebounds, you can control a game in high school, especially having someone who loves to block shots. He’d rather block a shot than dunk.”

Diallo also is available for pickup soccer games. “Oh yeah. I still love it,” he said.

All agree that challenges exist every day, such as finding clothes that fit, sitting in a school desk, trying to avoid a bump on the head walking through a hallway and trying to fit in seats on school buses.

“When you sleep, take showers or try to find shoes, it’s tough,” Diallo said.

“On the bus, I sit sideways or take two seats,” Evans said.

“There’s no point in going to the mall anymore,” Gardner said.

Gardner found a specialist who helps NBA players find jeans that fit. He ordered five pairs. His previous wardrobe consisted of sweat pants and sweat suits.

Yet none of the 7-footers wants to give up their size. As he walks through a crowded hallway, Evans said he has an advantage no one else has.

“I can see over everything,” he said.


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