When Elijah Stewart arrived at Westchester High as a sophomore from DeRidder, La., population 10,578, the junior varsity basketball coach, Dewitt Cotton, started calling him “Texas.”
“That was the first thing that came out of my mouth, because he was from the South,” Cotton said.
Stewart, an unassuming, polite, 6-foot-4 senior who lived in Cajun country most of his life, simply went with the flow.
“The story is they didn’t think I was going to last in the program,” Stewart said. “I ended up sticking around.”
He never let the culture shock chase him away.
“People are different,” he said. “It’s a different life.”
Two years later, he has blossomed into one of the best basketball players in the City Section.
He signed with Loyola Marymount in November, and Westchester Coach Ed Azzam said, “Loyola Marymount got a steal.”
From being an honor student to having tremendous athletic skills that make him a versatile player on the court, Stewart has helped lead the Comets to a 19-4 record going into a 7:15 p.m. Saturday game against Maryland’s DeMatha High in the Nike Extravaganza at Santa Ana Mater Dei. It will be another opportunity for Stewart to show off his skills in a big setting.
“He has the ability to dominate games in different ways, and not just shooting,” Azzam said.
Stewart can rebound, block shots, dribble and fire up three-point attempts with accuracy. He also has a 3.8 grade-point average and has settled in as a much-liked student on campus.
“He’s just a real nice kid,” Principal Robert Canosa-Carr said. “Teachers love him. He doesn’t carry himself around like you would expect a superstar athlete would. He carries himself as an honor student.”
He used to live in a town where the closest movie theater was an hour away and where fishing for catfish was part of the routine.
Stewart’s arrival coincided with a decision by Azzam to keep a group of young, promising players on junior varsity in an attempt to develop chemistry and have them grow together. The team was so good that it lost only one game in 2011-12, and many wondered why several players weren’t on varsity.
“The JV team should have been a varsity team, because we had a bunch of skilled players,” Stewart said. “Some of us felt we should have been on varsity, but it worked out for the best.”
That decision to keep everyone together helped Westchester win its 12th City title the following season and the outstanding chemistry created on JVs has carried over on this season’s team. Many of the players also have grade-point averages above 3.0.
Stewart said the transition from small-town life has gone well, with an assist from basketball.
“When you play basketball, things are a lot easier for you because you automatically get connection with certain people,” he said.
He has come to enjoy the Southern California lifestyle, though he has yet to try out his fishing skills.
What’s clear is that his improving basketball skills offer a future with lots of possibilities.
“There’s still a lot of potential he can find or tap into,” Azzam said.