Column: Sierra Canyon wins boys’ basketball Open Division with All-Star lineup of transfer students

Sierra Canyon players carry around the Open Division state championship trophy.
(Nick Koza)

It’s late Saturday night at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. Most of the crowd of 5,000 has left the NBA arena after Chatsworth Sierra Canyon defeated Sacramento Sheldon 75-62 to win the CIF state Open Division boys’ championship.

Duane Washington Jr., Sierra Canyon’s standout guard, is putting ketchup on a hot dog.

“It’s crispy,” he says as teammate K.J. Martin rushes over to take a bite.

Cassius Stanley, wearing a hoodie after scoring 23 points, is mumbling, “Why did we win state with six transfers?”


Scottie Pippen is showing his son Scotty how to cut down a net as a Sierra Canyon official keeps asking whether anyone has a pair of scissors.

Former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, Washington’s uncle, is giving a hug to Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier.

Kenyon Martin, the father of K.J. and once known as an NBA bad boy, is smiling and being friendly to anyone and everyone.

In a high school basketball season in which conventional wisdom was mostly wrong, the most unconventional team won it all.

In the fifth year since the Open Division was created to let the most ambitious schools compete in a division by themselves, it was only fitting that a team with five All-Star transfer students in the starting lineup found a way to unite, put aside any preconceived notions of entitlement and developed into the best team in California.

Those who think it’s easy winning with talent alone have no idea about the potential complications, pitfalls and personality clashes that inevitably surface on and off the court. That’s where the coach either has to intervene or risk being put on an unpredictable roller-coaster ride.

Remember, Sierra Canyon was the team that self-destructed a year ago with future Duke star Marvin Bagley III around. The Trailblazers’ coach, Ty Nichols, guided them to the Southern Section Open Division semifinals. Then came a crushing defeat, a sudden resignation and speculation of turmoil.

Enter Chevalier, who negotiated a tricky, uncertain truce. At the start of this season, Sierra Canyon hardly resembled a championship team. By January, there was plenty of skepticism, especially after a loss to Torrance Bishop Montgomery in which the Knights were missing three starters and still won. But behind the scenes, chemistry was building, players were starting to trust each other, parents were behaving and the signs of a very good team were beginning to surface.

“This is 100% about the boys and their ability to fight though and will themselves to a win,” Chevalier said.

No player blossomed more than Pippen, a junior guard who arrived from Florida with a famous name but no track record of success in Southern California. In recent weeks, with everyone watching and everything on the line, he has been spectacular, delivering clutch shots while displaying unyielding court leadership.

“His growth and leadership over the course of the year has been amazing,” Chevalier said. “He’s going to be a special player for somebody in college.”

His father had a courtside seat Saturday night and was beaming afterward.

“I enjoy watching him play,” the elder Pippen said. “He’s exciting. I think he’s starting to open up more. He was feeling his way and trying not to step on anyone’s toes. I’ve watched him do this for quite some time. It’s good to see him be able to do this on a big stage.”

This season lasted so long that some things were forgotten. Remember, it was Santa Ana Mater Dei winning the Southern Section Open Division championship, then suffering a stunning opening loss to Fairfax in the regional playoffs.

This was supposed to be year of the guard, but 6-foot-9 Onyeka Okongwu of Chino Hills and 6-10 Shareef O’Neal of Santa Monica Crossroads rose up to lead their teams to state titles.

And next season should prove just as intriguing. Many of the same top teams will be back near the top, starting with Sierra Canyon, which returns four starters.

Trailblazers defeat Sheldon

Twitter: @latsondheimer