Sondheimer: Alijah Arenas, Chatsworth continue redemption tour

Not since the days of Chino Hills and the Ball brothers packing public school gyms on the way to an unbeaten season in 2016 has there been a reason to offer a heartfelt thank you to one family for making such a profound impact in high school basketball with their decision to stay local.

Let's salute the mother and father of sophomore guard Alijah Arenas of Chatsworth. No one believed he'd stay one year, let alone two seasons, at Chatsworth High. His dad is Gilbert Arenas of NBA fame, and like LaVar Ball, he doesn't care what people say. He wanted his son to learn how to lead, how to deal with double teams, how to get up off the court when adversity strikes.

At 6 feet 6 and growing, Arenas has done that and much more to help his team move to within one victory of earning a trip to the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento to play for the Division IV state championship. It's extraordinary, considering Chatsworth went 9-21 last season and Arenas didn't leave for some program filled with all-stars. He doubled down on helping lift a bunch of neighborhood kids, culminating with a 53-point performance on Saturday night in the Southern California Regional semifinals against Washington Prep.

The fact he's a normal teenager who smiles, is polite and greets strangers and friends alike with respect only adds to the intrigue. While reporters are running around trying to figure out what Bronny James plans to do at USC and beyond, this son of basketball royalty is keeping it real. His talent level is exceptional. Is he can't-miss? Maybe. He's not there yet but if the CIF wants some real entertainment in Sacramento, they will root for Chatsworth to win on Tuesday at home against West Valley League rival Cleveland. He's averaging more than 32 points a game.

The fact he scored 53 points while missing nine free throws offers a hint at what he's capable of doing. He had one missed dunk that would have broken the internet if he had made it. Fans were ready to leap into the bleacher aisles as he elevated above a group of Washington Prep players. If you had closed your eyes and just listened to the crowd with every Arenas move, it was almost a throwback to the 11:30 p.m. championship games at the Sports Arena in the 1980s when Manual Arts was playing Crenshaw and fans were loudly arguing who was better.

Arenas really could be playing for any number of private schools that sell their programs as a way to get exposure or build up future NIL networks. Dad apologizes to no one for the choice to stick it out at Chatsworth.

"You have to learn how to lose," he said. "You have to feel the pain to get better."

It was two weeks ago when Arenas looked despondent shaking hands with the winning team in the City Section Open Division semifinals. The Chancellors had a three-point lead in the final seconds, missed two free throws, threw the ball away out of bounds and gave up consecutive threes in less than three seconds to lose to LACES. Arenas had zero points in the fourth quarter.

Arenas could have said, "Enough. Get me out of here."

Instead, he went back into his laboratory to figure out what went wrong.

"I had to take time to think what really happened and go over the game in my head," he said. "I had to get back in the gym. I took that game personally."

Now the Chancellors and Cleveland are on a redemption tour, as the state playoffs sometimes offer. Cleveland was seeded No. 1 in the Open Division playoffs but lost in the first round. Then the Cavaliers lost their best player. They have regrouped and get to face Chatsworth for a third time this season. Cleveland has won twice.

Arenas' sister, Izela, is also seeking a trip to Sacramento. She's a star guard for Sierra Canyon, which plays at Etiwanda in the Open Division girls' regional final.

Who knows what the future holds, but it's clear Arenas is learning lessons that will help him on his basketball journey.

"We had to lock in," he said. "We had to take practice more seriously. We had to be a team more seriously. We had to move forward."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.