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SF high school basketball teams to play at Chase Center

Stuart Hall guard Brett Jasper (1) tries to drive past University forward Luke Bradley (24) during the fourth quarter of a Bay Counties League basketball game in San Francisco on Jan. 3, 2023. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

On Friday afternoon, a group of San Francisco high schoolers will get the opportunity to play on the same court that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson call home.

Lick-Wilmerding and University’s basketball teams will play their annual doubleheader at Chase Center, a tradition that’s resuming after a two-year hiatus. The girls tip off at 1 p.m., and the boys are scheduled to follow at 2:30.

“It’s just a really special day for our school,” said University athletic director Jim Ketcham. “Our kids work so hard, they’re really serious students, and to have a day that’s just completely built around letting loose and having fun is so well-deserved, and they enjoy it so much.”

Since January 2007, the two schools have convened at the Golden State Warriors’ home for their basketball rivalry. The tradition began at what was then called Oracle Arena, and moved to Chase Center for the first time on Jan. 17, 2020, shortly before the sports world came to a screeching halt.

“Chase is a tremendous facility, and we’re appreciative that the Warriors allow community activity like this,” University boys head coach Randy Bessolo said. “It’s a great opportunity to celebrate a rivalry, competition and friendship. San Francisco’s a big city, but the sports community is so intertwined, where these kids grow up knowing each other from CYO (Catholic Youth Organization basketball), Little League and youth soccer.”

The two schools, which compete in the Bay Counties League (BCL), annually find a date that cooperates with their schedules and the Warriors’ schedule to take over the arena. When the Warriors played in Oakland, that meant packing students into buses and flooding the lower bowl of Oracle Arena with screaming teenagers before retreating to the parking lot for a postgame barbecue.

Now, it’s a shorter bus trip, and students still get to attend the games for free, but there’s no space for the schools to barbecue following the games.

“It’s really all the same, other than we haven’t figured out the barbecue at Chase yet,” Ketcham said. “When (Bayfront Park) opens up, we may get permitted to do the barbecue again. It’s still just an absolutely great day.”

Other high school teams occasionally took the court at Oracle Arena, but to this point, the Red Devils and Tigers are the only ones to do so at Chase Center.

Lick-Wilmerding head coach Eliot Smith watches his team during the second quarter of a Bay Counties League basketball game against Urban in San Francisco on Jan. 13, 2023. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

“You’re basically playing a state championship game, and you get to get out of school for it,” Lick-Wilmerding head boys basketball coach and athletic director Eliot Smith said when asked about playing in an NBA arena.

Lick-Wilmerding gave its students a half day off school in 2007, and University joined the next year. On Friday, Lick-Wilmerding students will be dismissed from class before noon, while University has no classes.

“It’s definitely the most exciting environment I’ve ever experienced,” said University forward Joey Kennedy, who will be just one of two players, along with Lick-Wilmerding’s Kailee Mahlstedt-Kamekona, to have played at Chase Center in both 2020 and 2023. “We’re so lucky to have the opportunity to play here in front of our whole school.” 

The logistics of playing a high school game at an NBA arena are difficult, regardless of circumstances. On days where the Warriors are at home, the Red Devils and Tigers have a hard deadline to clear the court. With Golden State on the road to face the Cleveland Cavaliers, that won’t be an issue, but the schools have to foot the bill to open and staff the arena.

“We foot the cost in two ways,” Ketcham said. “We pay the Warriors a fee for the cost they incur for opening up the facility, and we buy tickets from the Warriors. Honestly, the Warriors have been so great with it. They’ve come to understand that this is a really cool thing they do for our schools.”

When the series first started in 2007, the schools struggled to sell tickets to that night’s Warriors game, even at $20 a pop. Now, it’s a race to get them.

The schools compete for a trophy that showed up in 2012, a jersey made of the two schools’ jerseys sewn together. Two Lick-Wilmerding students presented it to the school, and the rest is history. The school in possession of the trophy must win both the boys and girls games to keep it. If the other school wins either game, the trophy changes hands.

Lick-Wilmerding guard Finn McDonald (3) tries to drive on Urban forward Kyle Neece (24) during the second quarter of a Bay Counties League basketball game in San Francisco on Jan. 13, 2023. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

That hybrid jersey currently belongs to University. While the Red Devils will be favored to win both games, Lick-Wilmerding’s girls have gotten the better of University’s in recent years, winning the last 10 head-to-head meetings. However, the Tigers graduated seven seniors off last year’s team. University (13-4, 4-0 BCL West) is led by junior forward Gabriella Kelley, while Emmie Hou, Mahlstedt-Kamekona and Natalie Mak are among the key returners for Lick-Wilmerding (10-6, 2-0).

Regardless of the score, it’s an unwritten rule that both teams get all their players into the game for at least a couple minutes. Rather than wait to see if the game turns into a blowout, both teams typically go deep into their benches during the first quarter to ensure that all players get the opportunity to play on the grand stage.

“There’s a spirit of participation,” Bessolo said. “That’s the commitment of both schools.”

Sacred Heart Cathedral guard Fed Pernell (2) tries to drive past University guard Gus Parsons (23) during the first half of a non-league basketball game in San Francisco on Dec. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Mona Fowler

Bessolo’s boys will be heavily favored in the latter half of the doubleheader. University (17-3, 4-0) won its first five games this month by an average of 33.2 points before posting a 71-67 win over Sacramento powerhouse Grant on Monday. Last week, the Devils rolled to an 86-46 win over a San Domenico team that beat Lick-Wilmerding (11-7, 0-3) in overtime on Wednesday.

The Tigers are currently on a five-game losing streak, but none of those losses are by more than nine points.

“Our kids battle,” Smith said. “They’re really competitive.”

All four teams that will take the court on Friday are ranked in The Standard's latest San Francisco basketball top 10. University's boys and girls are both ranked second, the Lick-Wilmerding girls are fifth and Smith's unit is 10th.