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La Jolla hoops team relying on smarts

Vikings succeeding on, off court

The numbers most people see when they look at La Jolla High School’s boys basketball team are these: 14-7 (the Vikings’ record through Feb. 1), 5-2 (their Western League record) and 18.7 (point per game for the team’s leading scorer, Jack Latta).

The numbers that matter most to coach Kamal Assaf, though, are 3.93 (the team’s cumulative weighted grade point average), 4.65 (the highest individual weighted GPA) and seven (the number of Vikings players with a weighted GPA of 4.0 or higher).

Assaf wants his team to be successful on the court just as much as any other coach, but also puts a heavy focus on how well his players do in the classroom.

“They take a lot of pride in not only being bright people, but also being high achievers,” Assaf said. “They expect a lot from themselves.”

According to Assaf, Latta has been accepted to both Harvard and M.I.T., Mike Soumekh has signed with the Air Force Academy to play lacrosse, and Will Peterson has been accepted to and will attend Notre Dame University.

Those are just a few examples of the cerebral nature of his team, Assaf said.

He said he enjoys working with intelligent players, because more often than not, they understand strategy and game-planning well. Assaf learned to appeal to players’ intellect from Pete Newell, who led Cal to the 1959 NCAA championship and is considered one of the most influential men in basketball history.

“We’re not always the biggest, the quickest or the strongest, but what we have is kids who are tough and can be taught,” Assaf said. “They understand the nuances of the game. ... When you start treating players like intellectuals, you can really appeal to them. It’s often the ‘why’ that kids need to know for them to run through a wall for you.”

Gregory Ball covers sports for La Jolla Light. He can be reached at ballgregory@yahoo.com.