Exclusive high school club: 7-foot centers are on the rise
A man knelt down to place the tape measure on the floor. Another man stood on a stool to stretch the tape to a wooden beam. This was when Jazz Gardner of Hacienda Heights Los Altos High would learn if he had joined an select club – the 7-foot-tall club.
“Oh my God – he’s 7,” said his mother, Aude, holding up a video camera.
“I’m 7, I’m 7,” Jazz replied enthusiastically.
In the past 50 years of high school basketball in Southern California, the number of 7-foot players is less 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 of Los Angeles Daniel Murphy, Jason Collins of Studio City Harvard-Westlake, Tyson Chandler of Compton Dominguez, Thomas Welsh of Los Angeles Loyola, Bol Bol of Santa Ana Mater Dei and Harold Yu of Chatsworth Sierra Canyon.
There have been many outstanding players ages 6-11 and even some players who were listed in high school at 7 feet but later turned out to be an inch shorter once measured in college or the NBA. . And some became 7ft later, like Mark Eaton, who went 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 Southland — Gardner, 7-1 Dennis Evans of Riverside Hillcrest and 7-2 Sidy Diallo of Santa Fe Springs St. Paul. A fourth 7-footer, Sierra Canyon’s second Majok Chuol, is waiting to become eligible.
Any high school coach who’s had a 7-footer knows it’s as valuable as a gold coin.
“It’s a blessing,” Hillcrest coach Jackson Wood said. “It’s 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 years old and his father 6-10 years old. He said he found out he was 7ft tall during a medical examination in his freshman year. He had a growth spurt in college, going from 6-5 to 6-10 in one year.
Like all 7 footers, a major challenge is dealing with people who always want to look up when they see someone that tall.
“I just try to take it easy,” 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.”
Says Diallo: “It’s fun, man. Wherever you go, people like to know you and want to take pictures with you. It’s just fun being tall.
Evans and Gardner met for the first time Saturday in the State Preview Classic at Ontario Colony. Gardner had 18 points in Los Altos’ 61-50 win. Evans contributed 13 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. Twice Evans rejected Gardner’s shots, which few did. It was a lesson learned for the next level.
Gardner learned he had reached 7 feet before his second season while attending a practice session in Santa Barbara. His father, Jelani, was a 6-6 standout guard at Bellflower St. John Bosco. Her mother is French and measures 5-6.
“It’s just a blessing from God,” Gardner said of his height. “I wasn’t looking at my mom and dad, ‘I’m supposed to be 7 feet.’ I appreciate it and I will maximize it for my family. It was a good thing to happen in my life. It gave me a cachet.
Gardner trained to go beyond using his height as an advantage. He can shoot at three, dribble like a guard and make free throws. He has five triple-doubles this season in points, rebounds and blocked shots.
Diallo, a senior, said he was a football player living in Senegal when a basketball coach convinced him to try the sport. He moved to the United States and played Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada, and Arizona before arriving in St. Paul. He knows four languages and loves blocking shots. He got injured last season.
“He forces high school kids to modify 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 likes to block shots. He’d rather block a shot than dunk.
Diallo is also available for pickup football matches. “Oh yes. I still love her,” 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 your head while walking down a hallway, and trying to fit in the school bus seats.
“When you’re sleeping, taking showers or trying to find shoes, it’s hard,” Diallo said.
“On the bus, I sit on the side or take two seats,” Evans said.
“There’s no point in going to the mall anymore,” Gardner said.
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Gardner has found a specialist who helps NBA players find jeans that fit. He ordered five pairs. Her previous wardrobe consisted of sweatpants and tracksuits.
Still, none of the 7-footers want to give up their size. As he strolls down a crowded hallway, Evans said he has an edge that no one else has.
“I can see everything,” he said.