503 square miles, and not a hoop in sight. Nearly every rim in Los Angeles has been taken down or boarded up since the pandemic started in March 2020, according to the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.
For many Angelenos, basketball is a way of life, and its absence left players wanting.
“It feels like you’re just missing something,” South LA resident Pradeep Chakravarti said. “[Basketball] clears your mind and it makes you more able to cope with [difficulties]. This is definitely a time when a lot of people have more to cope with.”
The pandemic has affected basketball competition at every level, from the everyday hooper to the NBA all-star. To cope with the past 11 months of pandemic-induced restrictions, members of the Southern California basketball community have found new ways to pivot and keep the sport alive.
For hopeful high school basketballers, spring to summer is the focal period. This time is the prime opportunity for juniors and seniors to get noticed by college coaches at recruiting trips and showcases. But with the NCAA having extended their dead period of no in-person recruiting or scouting through April 15 of this year, that has severely impacted the college outlook of so many players.
To make matters more complicated, the NCAA gave a year of eligibility back to current players, making spots on the team even more scarce.
These changes were a shot in the foot for players like Matt Lee, a Village Christian HS alumni who just a year ago was aiming for the college arena. With his hopes of playing high-level college basketball dashed, he decided to take a gap year hoping opportunities come his way.
“It hit everybody by surprise, especially the athletes,” Lee said about the pandemic. “The summer was supposed to be an opportunity for me to gain more exposure to coaches.”
As an alternative to typical in-person training, Long Beach-based basketball trainer and coach Josh Lozano created a Zoom workout plan soon after the lockdown began last March. But when things began to open up a little in April, he immediately launched outdoor small group training sessions. He viewed it as his responsibility to be there for the kids despite the state of the pandemic, not for the sole purpose of bettering them as athletes, but to provide a safe space for them from a mental health perspective.
“At the end of the day, that’s what they needed,” Lozano said. “Some companionship, someone that’s not at their home or on Zoom. So I just wanted to open that space up. I told parents that I know COVID’s out there, but at the same time for the youth, mental health is just as important as physical health.”
Months into the pandemic, there were no organized basketball events or showcases taking place in the Orange County-LA area as a result of the restrictions. Knowing how badly players were itching for any chance to compete, basketball coach and trainer Keenan Kitajima partnered with an Irvine gym owner to host the first edition of the “OC Night Runs.” He brought a couple of players, not knowing who else was going to show up. But it turned out that some of the most high profile players in the country showed up that night, including Mayfair High School’s 5-star recruits Josh Christopher and Dior Johnson.
“It was crazy to think that a kid like that would make the drive down to play in an open run,” Kitajima said speaking of Johnson. “But at the same time, it illustrated the point that these kids were just dying to hoop.”
Immediately after the first run, news about the event spread across the area. Now, nine months later, the event has grown larger than Kitajima could have ever expected while providing players the chance to compete and gain much-needed exposure through the media exposure interest that has resulted from it.
High school basketball has also started to make a return. Today, 39 out of the 50 states have allowed participation in the sport at some capacity, according to the national sports site MaxPreps. California has disallowed inter-school competition at a county-by-county basis until they have met the ‘Moderate’ tier status for COVID-19 as deemed by health professionals. This is a mark that according to state-wide trends has been shown to be an unlikely occurrence in time for a season to occur. This inherently has furthered the opportunity divide for athletes residing in the state and has actually prompted many athletes to transfer out of the state.
Keenan Kitajima coaches his OC Night Run select team during the Hoops2.0 Socal showcase. (Photo by Pranav Iyer)
There have been numerous events that have come to life these past few months to help alleviate the difficulties that the absence of high school and college seasons present, including the BringYourGameLA Showcase and Hoops2.0 SoCal. College coaches have used live-streamed events like these to scout and recruit from afar while abiding by NCAA guidelines.
“You don’t want to catch COVID-19, especially how dangerous it’s getting right now,” Lee said. “But at the same time, you don’t want to be losing these opportunities that are right there for you.”
Over the years, Lozano has become one of the community’s biggest advocates for the advancement of girls’ basketball. He has worked with some of the area’s top female hoopers over the past few years through his personal training sessions and his WeR1 organization.
During this past Christmas break, Asia Avinger, a current SDSU player, wanted to meet up with him to talk over things after experiencing a season-ending ACL injury before even suiting up for her first game. To help uplift her spirits, Lozano invited along 18 or so players to help provide her emotional support during her road to recovery. What was supposed to be just a training session ended up turning into a full-on scrimmage.
And from there, the WeRun concept was born, a weekly private girls basketball event that featured much of the area’s top high school and college basketball talent. Within a week, interest had spread far beyond even Lozano’s reach.
This event, while known for being a first for the girls’ basketball during the pandemic, is even more notable for bringing together the relatively segmented girls’ basketball community and providing national-level exposure for the athletes in a virtually unprecedented fashion.
Josh Lozano speaks to the invited attendees of his weekly WeRun event. (Photo by Pranav Iyer)
“With what Josh is doing, it’s something that should’ve always been there,” Lee said.” He took that chance and it blew up. …that was super big for the female community and the Asian community because I’ve seen a lot of Asian American female hoopers coming out, really getting their names out there, when they should’ve [already been before].”
The organizers of these events like Lozano and Kitajima understand the large health risks they are taking by hosting relatively large-scale events like these in the age of COVID-19, but in their eyes and many others within the SoCal basketball community, it is a necessity.
Nearly all of these events would not have existed had it not been for the pandemic because they were all essentially pivots to the changes that were imposed. But according to Lozano, the overall movement that has resulted from these efforts has an impact he believes will live on even after the pandemic dies down.
“In a time of need, people came together and this is what sprouted,” Lozano said.