Westchester High School senior Amir Johnson is not focused on the attention he receives as a star player on one of the premier high school basketball teams in the nation.
The only thought going through the mind of the six-foot-11-inch, 230-pound power forward/center when he steps on the court is to play the game he loves.
“I don’t notice the crowd. I don’t hear anything on the court. I just play the game,” said Johnson, 17.”
Johnson goes far beyond merely just playing basketball, he excels at it to a level where he is considered one of the top players in the country.
Westchester coach Ed Azzam is quick to explain why Johnson is such an unusual athlete and key presence on the Comet team.
“He’s a focal point of our offense because he scores at such a high percentage,” said Azzam, who is in his 26th year as coach.
“Defensively he alters other teams’ plan of attack. He has tremendous athletic ability and he has a great feel for the game.”
Johnson is averaging about 23 points and ten rebounds per game this season.
According to Rivals.com, a national recruiting Web site for high school sports, Johnson was ranked the 18th-best overall basketball prospect in the U.S. and sixth-best at the power forward position.
The Westchester Comets entered the season ranked number one in the country by USA Today, and the team still remains the top team in the Southland according to the Los Angeles Times, but all the Comets focus on is winning, Johnson said.
“We just play hard and we win,” he said. “It feels good to play for a team that likes to win.”
The Comets have climbed to a 20-3 record this season and already won the Western League title. The team is on the verge of capturing the Los Angeles City Section championship, which Westchester missed out on last season.
The Comets will battle league rival Fairfax High in the city championship final at 5 p.m. Saturday, March 5th, at the Forum in Inglewood.
Westchester was kept from the playoffs last season after the City Section of the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) ruled that Johnson was improperly recruited from his former high school, Verbum Dei, in his junior year.
The ruling ended any city and state title chances for the Comets and put Johnson on the bench after playing only four games last season.
“They said Westchester recruited me but I moved to this area,” he said. “I was hurt.”
The shortened season last year only transferred into the motivational tool for Johnson and Westchester to take the frustration out on every team they face this season.
“For me, it was just to work on my game. I’m constantly working on getting better,” said Johnson, who is in his first full season at Westchester since transferring. “We’re trying to beat everybody this season. We want to take it out on last year.”
The Comets are certainly taking it out on opponents this season and Johnson may have even gotten carried away sometimes. The shattered glass from the broken backboard was still being swept off the gym floor after practice one day when Johnson demonstrated a powerful dunk.
The center has had many highlights since suiting up this season, including the home game against Fairfax High, in which Johnson scored 26 points to help lead the Comets to victory.
“I’ve never been in a real rivalry game like that,” Johnson said of the Fairfax win. “I did not expect that with a whole bunch of people out there.”
In the beginning of this season Johnson faced another test of mental strength when he broke his left foot after going up for a dunk in practice. The injury kept him out until late December and put on hold his chance to play a true season in a Comet uniform.
“I had to be real patient and do a lot of rehab,” said Johnson, who required surgery for the injury.
When working on improving his game, Johnson said he concentrates on all aspects of the sport, including dribbling and shooting, and he also lifts weights.
Azzam said Johnson is not the type of player who tries to avoid putting in his share of work.
“He has a great attitude and he works hard,” Azzam said. “Some guys with his talent don’t feel they have to work hard but he doesn’t have that.”
Johnson’s dedication as a player also has an influence on his teammates, who all respect him as one of the leaders of the squad.
One player who has known Johnson since the sixth grade and enjoys being his teammate is Comet senior guard Jerard Moret.
“He plays a pretty big role for us. We relate to him very well on the floor and it makes it easier playing with Amir because he’s so talented, Moret said.”
The tight bond between the Comet players is something that Johnson said is a big factor in contributing to Westchester’s domination.
“One part is that we’re all friends with each other,” he said.
It also helps that Westchester has a deep, talented roster of players that can create an unstoppable force on the court.
“Our defense is way powerful,” Johnson said.
The Comets also owe a great deal of their prowess to the coaching of Azzam, he said.
In the fall, Johnson will head to the University of Louisville to play for another veteran coach, Rick Pitino. Louisville was Johnson’s top pick over other famed college basketball teams, including Georgia Tech, Syracuse and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Johnson said Pitino’s history as a coaching legend and his ability to lead players to the National Basketball Association (NBA) were enough reason to head to Louisville.
The dream of playing in the NBA is a goal Johnson said he wants to reach within a couple of years.
While college life and playing in the pros are future objectives for Johnson, he and Westchester still have some things to take care of in the rest of this season.
“Our main focus is to win the last game of the year, the state championship game,” Azzam said.
Johnson is confident that his team is ready to plow through the rest of its challenges and win the titles it missed out on last season.
“I think we’re going to do good as long as we keep the mentality to play hard and win,” Johnson said.