By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer
Not five minutes had passed after Pasadena High School beat Mira Costa in the CIF-Southern Section Division 2A boys basketball quarterfinals when senior point guard George Toyama heard the news.
“I overheard somebody in the stands say that Keppel won,” Toyama recalled, “and immediately I had a grin on my face.”
The postgame speech over and ready to leave the locker room and jump on the bus to head home, Toyama pulled out his cell phone first and made a call.
It’s coming man.
On the other end was Keppel guard Timmy Wong, a three-year letterman who helped the Aztecs reach their first semifinals appearance against Pasadena tonight at 7 at Muir.
We’re coming for you too.
A matchup 14 years in the making, Toyama will play against childhood friend Wong in the grandest stage high school sports has to offer, with the winner moving on to next Saturday’s championship game at the Honda Center.
Toyama knows what it’s like to play in such a spotlight. As a freshman he was on the Pasadena team that won the Division 2A championship three years ago. Sitting in the stands, looking up to the massive scoreboard and an overflow crowd was Wong. He was there supporting his best friend Toyama, whom he’s known and played basketball with since they were 4 years old. The scenery much too captivating to forget, Wong couldn’t sleep from thinking all day what it may be like to play for something as meaningful as a CIF-Southern Section championship.
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“I thought about it every day for at least a week,” Wong recalled. “It encouraged me so much that I wanted to play at the Honda Center or play against teams of that caliber.”
Wong will get his chance tonight when Keppel and Pasadena play in front of a capacity crowd at Muir. Both teams never have played each other, but Toyama knows his opponents very well, particularly Wong, with whom he played basketball in AAU and later in an Asian League in which players were required to be at least a quarter Asian.
Wong, half Japanese and half Chinese, played with the Monterey Park Mustangs and Toyama, who is Japanese, with the Pasadena Bruins. They played travel ball together with SGV of the AAU from the third to seventh grade. They’ve kept in touch over the years through text messages and several get-togethers. They sent each other good-luck text messages for every game when the playoffs started. Their families also are close.
“He’s like family,” Toyama said.
This past summer, Toyama and Wong were selected from a group of players in California and Las Vegas to travel to China for two weeks. They played against soon-to-be professionals that included a 7-foot-4 center and 6-4 point guard. They traveled to Hong Kong among other cities.
“It was my first time leaving the country,” Toyama said. “It was amazing to see how far basketball can take us.”
Smart, humble and armed with a high basketball IQ, it’s easy to see why Toyama and Wong instantly struck up a friendship.
“Words can’t describe how I feel right now,” Wong said. “It’s beyond my dreams because we were always playing together or against each other and now, to play for a shot at the finals is just amazing.”
There won’t exactly be a culture clash when both teams meet tonight, but there are some stark differences. Pasadena is nationally renowned for its basketball program while Keppel’s putting itself on the map this year with impressive wins.
The Bulldogs’ entire team consists of African Americans, except for Toyama, while the Aztecs are predominantly Asian. For that reason, Wong feels two worlds will collide when they meet tonight. Toyama agreed.
“Yeah, there is going to definitely be a mixture of cultures,” he said. “Keppel has a lot of Asians on their basketball teams. They’ll be coming here and see a big change of atmosphere.”
Wong remembers when Yao Ming was the first Chinese big man to make an immediate impact in the NBA, and said he’s waiting for the day when an Asian player makes a big impact at point guard.
“There are a lot of good Asian players out there,” Wong said. “It’s even more surreal that two Asian point guards will go up against each other tonight.”
Best friends or not, a championship is at stake, so expect some banter and hard screens if and when they match up one on one.
“I feel like there’s going to be a lot of emotion being put into this game,” Toyama said. “I know he’s one of my best friends, but this is our year and I’m not going to lay out.”
Before the season got underway, Toyama was looking through the new division realignment. He saw Pasadena dropped to Division 2A from Division 1AA. As he looked at the rest of the teams he saw Keppel. In the weekly top 16 polls, Pasadena and Keppel were in the top three in the latter part of the season.
“The whole time they were right behind us,” Toyama said. Staring at the page Toyama couldn’t resist.
“I was telling my father, ‘Imagine if I get a chance to play against Timmy?’ ” Toyama recalled way back in October. “This is our senior year, and now that it’s happened it’s like a dream come true to play one of my best friends with so much on the line. No matter what happens this is something we’ll take with us for the rest of our lives. What an experience.”
An experience 14 years in the making.