SACRAMENTO - I’m not a big star gazer unless you’re talking the Big Dipper or northern lights.
The Hollywood stars squirt ketchup onto their curly fries just like the rest of us.
Besides that, all people – beautiful and otherwise – deserve privacy. Even in public places.
With that said, this was different (of course it was). This was arguably the biggest dipper in the entertainment solar system – Denzel Washington - and he was on my turf, a high school sporting event.
This wasn’t the Lakers at Staples or the Knicks at MSG. This was tiny (339 students) Windward High School of Los Angeles playing St. Joseph-Notre Dame of Alameda for the small-school California boys basketball championship at Arco Arena in Sacramento on Friday.
Denzel’s son, Malcolm, a 5-foot-9 senior, is a fourth-year player and third-year starting point guard at Windward, which was playing in its first state-title game, a 1:30 p.m. contest that attracted about 2,000 fans in an NBA arena that holds about 17,000.
“So where’s Denzel?” someone asked the crew along press row about 20 minutes before tip-off.
“Four rows back, middle of the court,” someone said matter-of-factly.
Sure enough, there he was for all to gawk.
There was nothing incognito about the man. No sun glasses. No body guards. He even sat at the end of the row, making him an easy target for autograph seekers and general memorabilia freaks.
Clad in a black nylon Nike sweat suit, with black cap and tennies, an unshaven Denzel looked very much the part of a dad rooting for his kid at a high school sporting event. No rehearsal needed for this role because this was Malcolm’s last high school game and perhaps final competitive basketball contest period.
Even though dad watched his son compete dozens of times before, Denzel appeared nervous, chomping on a wad of gum like he wanted to hurt it.
This was for the state championship after all.
“Gotta call my wife,” a fellow scribe said while pecking his cell phone feverishly. “This is one high school game she wishes she was at. She loooves Denzel.”
Clearly, the elder Washington wasn’t there to upstage his son, which would have been tough on this day.
As he’s known to do, Malcolm ran the show expertly – distributing the ball to the team’s Big Three, 6-4 Michigan-bound guard Darius Morris (25 points, eight rebounds), super 6-5 sophomore Wesley Saunders (21 points) and 6-10 UCLA-bound post Anthony Stover (14 points, six blocks) – and Windward rolled to an impressive victory 69-53.
He had six points, including a nifty drive and layup during a 10-0 run to start the game that got everything rolling. He made half of his six shots, missed a pair of 3-pointers and added six rebounds, two assists and even a block.
Did we mention he was 5-9?
“Malcolm never backs down and he always keeps us together,” said Windward coach Miguel Villegas.
With the intensity of Alonzo Harris – the character he won his Best Actor Oscar for in “Training Day” – Denzel’s unmistakable voice could be heard cheering and hollering throughout the game. He stood often, offering, encouragement and instruction. He even needled the refs during a tough stretch in the third quarter.
He was on the phone passing on the good news, presumedly to wife Pauletta, when Malcolm was announced and given one of the game’s two sportsmanship awards.
Dad smiled a little broader.
At a 15-minute press conference afterward, under the searing lights his dad is used to, Malcolm was asked only one question, the final one: “What was it like to play at Arco and win your final game?”
The 3.5 GPA student didn’t hesitate or clam up. His answer was measured, compassionate and real. No stage fright here.
“To see how far we’ve come since our freshman year is kind of indescribable,” he said. “I love these guys. I can’t wait to celebrate and bring this trophy back to Southern California.”
Back in the stands, Denzel was celebrating in a relaxed sort of way with a friend or fellow dad. The four rows of seats Windward fans had sat were all but clear except for the two gentlemen.
I sat with MaxPreps colleague Kevin Askeland, who was covering the next game, the Division V girls contest pitting Pinewood and Bellarmine-Jefferson. The entire first quarter I noted that the row in front of Denzel was completely clear. I truly wanted to ask him what it was like for a father to watch his son on the big court? How it compared with all his personal accomplishments? Would he remember this more than “’The Titans?”
But wouldn’t that be breaking my stance of letting celebrating celebrities lie? Wasn’t I just being an opportunist, a Hollywood hound, a camera-less member of the paparazzi?
The first quarter horn sounded and, with pad and pen in hand, I made a beeline for the man I so admired on screen as Malcolm X, Hurricane Carter and Coach Herman Boone.
“Mr. Washington, I hate to bother you, but my name is Mitch Stephens and I’m with MaxPreps Sports and I . …”
Before I could spit out my question, Washington said: “You work for MaxPreps? Larry and I are on that site all the time.”
Larry Cherry is his longtime stylist whom Washington immediately introduced me to. We all shook hands.
“Larry has a daughter (Nailah) who plays in New York (Roosevelt High) and I can follow her on your site.”
Cherry said: “And I can follow Malcolm from New York. It’s great.”
I thanked them both but felt like I needed to get right to the point so I asked Denzel about watching his son.
“You’re not interviewing me are you?” he said good-naturedly. “Because this is not about me, it’s about the boys and the team.”
I laughed sheepishly and hid my pen ever so slyly.
“How far they’ve come over the last four years and finishing it off like they did today is very special,” he said. “This was an once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Don’t I know it.
For the entire second quarter we just talked basketball, fatherhood and Windward sports.
A former college basketball player at Fordham under P.J. Carlesimo, Denzel shared the progression of Windward’s season, the toughness of its schedule, the character of the boys and the chemistry of the team.
He asked me where Bellarmine-Jefferson was located (Burbank), if there’s talk about organizing a tournament between division winners (no) and when the Division I game between Westchester and McClymonds was taking place (the following night).
I felt pretty good that I could enlighten this obviously enlightened mega star on the ever-so-vital landscape of California high school basketball. Felt even better when he gave another unprovoked wringing endorsement of my employer.
“I don’t know what I’d do without MaxPreps and you can quote me on that,” he said. “I mean, we live on the site. You click here to get information on your team, then you click there to get your opponent, and click here to get their stats and rankings. It’s great.”
I didn’t dare ask if he did infomercials, so instead I re-taught myself a long-life lesson: Never ask a question that you’re not prepared for the answer.
“So, do you ever click on the stories?”
Denzel gave a quizzical look.
“Cuz, you know, that’s what I do.”
“Not really,” he said.
And I thought Alonzo Harris was cruel. What a dagger.
Actually, it didn’t bother me at all. This was an honest, real exchange, nothing contrived or stilted. This was no "Remember the Wildcats" junket.
Denzel and Cherry, two longtime friends, had simply left a movie set - “The Book of Eli” – on a Friday afternoon in Mexico to take in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
They enjoyed some laughs, breathed in the sport, took some pride in Malcolm’s skilled and sportsmanlike game and relished a championship.
The only thing missing was curly fries and ketchup.
E-mail Mitch Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.