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Column: RJ Smith enjoys Damien’s ride to brink of state boys’ basketball title

RJ Smith of Damien poses for a photo with his sister and mother.
RJ Smith of Damien poses for a photo with sister, Kennedy, a star player at Etiwanda, and his mother, Monica.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)
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Late Tuesday night, senior RJ Smith of La Verne Damien High went into big-brother mode by comforting his sophomore sister, Kennedy Smith of Etiwanda. One earned a trip to play for a state basketball championship in Sacramento on Friday; the other came up one win short.

“She was in my room crying,” RJ said. “We talked. She’s going to be special. This is just a beginning. It’s so rare we were put in this situation. The result didn’t come out the way we wanted. She’s going to be OK. I’m happy for my team. We’re going to Sacramento and make the best of it and have fun.”

Twelve teams from Southern California will play this weekend at Golden 1 Center in the first state basketball championships since 2019.

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Damien is set to play Clovis North at 8 p.m. Friday for the Division I championship. The Etiwanda girls had their unbeaten season come to an end in a loss to Chatsworth Sierra Canyon in the Southern California Open Division regional final.

Kennedy will be in Sacramento cheering for her brother. Their mother, Monica, was a standout player at Washington Prep and has raised them as a single parent for several years. They’re terrific players and terrific teenagers.

RJ, headed to Colorado, is one of the most versatile guards in Southern California. He does whatever it takes to win.

“I do better helping people,” he said. “I play the game the right way. If I see someone open, I’ll pass it to them. Everyone can score on this team. We know if someone is going off, you get them the ball.”

There’s one characteristic found in every championship team — unselfishness. You see it when a player gives up an open shot to make a pass. You feel it when a teammate jumps off the bench to celebrate a charging foul. You sense it when players are so happy for each other.

RJ is one of those players. He knows his coach, Mike LeDuc, is in his 42nd year with more than 1,000 career victories but no state championships. When Damien defeated Irvine Crean Lutheran to win the regional title, Smith was extremely happy — for his coach.

“It was a surreal moment,” he said. “After the game, I gave him a hug. I told him we’re going to get one. I want to make him happy and proud and give him a first one. He doesn’t like emotion on the court. If you talk to him and get to know him, he’s a wonderful guy. I’ve had a great four years. I’m thankful and grateful.”

Another team experiencing a surreal moment is Venice. The Gondoliers are set to play Chino Pleasant Valley for the Division III championship at 4 p.m. Friday. It’s the best season in school history. No Los Angeles Unified School District team has won a state title since Westchester in 2010. The Gondoliers just opened their new gym, and coach Dave Galley has somehow been able to keep his talented players together during two years of COVID-19 when other players in LAUSD left for supposedly greener pastures.

“This has been a resilient group,” Galley said. “They love playing basketball. They love being around each other. It’s one of those rare teams you’re going to remember.”

Venice fell behind 11-2 in its regional final against Calabasas Viewpoint before eventually going on a 13-0 spurt. “Some teams put their head down and are suddenly down 25-2,” Galley said. “Not this team. They just respond. They focus on the defensive end and grind.”

Tyler Hunt, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, gets to show off his skills as one of the best players in the City Section. “Tyler is amazing,” Galley said. “He’s a very loyal person. He’s never wavered. He’s enjoyed the ride. He’s a very team-based guy.”

It’s going to be the first time Venice plays in an NBA arena. Galley already has his speech ready.

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“The basket is still 10 feet,” he said, recalling a scene from “Hoosiers.”

Win or lose, it’s going to be quite a weekend in Sacramento for fans, coaches, players and parents.

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