A lot comes and goes in four decades, such as trends in fashion, music and even sports. Polytechnic School has gone through its own changes with modifications and new buildings and facilities on its 114-year-old campus, but since 1981, one reigning figure has made an indelible impact on its basketball program. “I think one of the biggest things about [the boys’ basketball program] is how long [head coach Brad Hall] has been at Poly,” said Dimitri Mendoza, a recent Poly graduate who played hoops under Hall since his freshman year. “There’s a tradition and community with basketball and it continues year to year because there’s the consistency of him being there for so long.” That tradition was evident on June 9 when Hall managed to overcome every hurdle brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and guide the Panthers to a CIF Southern Section Division 4AA championship by defeating host Arcadia, 63-54. The win not only gave the Poly athletic department its 40th CIF-SS team title but cemented Hall as certainly one of the best coaches in the school’s history and, quite possibly, the region and state. In his 36 seasons at Poly, Hall has accumulated an overall record of 636-269 with 12 league crowns, three CIF-SS championships and one CIF State championship appearance. According to Cal-Hi Sports, an online publication that covers California high school athletics, Hall is among the top 40 winningest coaches in the state. “Brad has been a positive force in student-athletes’ lives for over 40 years,” said Poly Athletic Director Steve Beerman. “His focus on sportsmanship, integrity, character and doing the right thing speaks to his impact on kids more than final scores. His teams are traditionally fundamentally sound, highly competitive and represent the school with class.”
There’s plenty to boast about with such a loaded resume, but Hall wouldn’t. “I just don’t feel comfortable talking about that,” he told the Outlook in a recent phone interview. “I’d rather talk about the players. They are the ones who deserve the credit. My record is nothing without them.” That selfless attitude and focus on the student-athletes is what has helped Hall thrive in his four decades as a head coach, a profession he happened to “slip into” back in 1978.
Hall, who graduated from Poly in 1973 and later from UC Berkeley, returned to his alma mater and served as an assistant coach under Tom Bradbury in 1978, the same year the Panthers claimed their first-ever CIF boys’ basketball championship. “Poly always had a history of a good basketball program,” said Hall, who picked up that torch when he took over the program in 1981 to coach his younger brother Jim. In his first season, he guided the program to a 15-9 record and a playoff berth. It didn’t take long for Hall to make his mark at Poly. Only four years into the job, Hall guided the program to its most memorable season. The Panthers finished 26-6 in the 1983-84 campaign and claimed a CIF-SS championship with a 66-62 victory over Santa Monica Crossroads. The team won two games in the state playoffs but was edged by Cloverdale, 53-52, in the championship game. “You just try to convince the boys to take it day by day and do the best that you can every day,” Hall said. “That really got nailed down with our 1984 team. We had no goals of going to the state finals or even winning the state championship. We just had really good players who bought in and realized what they can do.” That remarkable season set the tone and culture for Poly basketball going forward. “It’s just trying to be fundamental and trusting your skills and having confidence in them,” Hall said. “Just stay calm and play. You know what to do. You hope there’s some sort of culture, but it’s hard in a small school with students doing many different activities. You just let the players know you care and that you want to teach them the skills and have kids believe in those skills because that will give them the confidence to succeed. You want the kid that played the least to realize he’s just as valuable as the kid who led in scoring.” It certainly worked for Brandon Szeto, who graduated from Poly this past month and was essential to the Panthers’ postseason run. “He’s more of an ‘old school’ coach,” Szeto said. “So he kind of gets on you a lot, but I felt like that helped me way more as a player. He would always nitpick small details in my game that actually translated into me playing well. I wouldn’t be the player I am today if it wasn’t for him.” An outsider who witnessed that culture firsthand was former Flintridge Prep boys’ basketball coach Garrett Ohara, who has known Hall for four decades. “When I played for Flintridge Prep, Brad was there coaching,” said Ohara, who graduated from Prep in 1984 and went on to coach at his alma mater from 1999-2019. “My first year was 1980-81 and I’ve known about him since then. Becoming a peer and coaching against him, I always had the ultimate respect for him as a coach and as a person. He’s always prepared. I think Brad has a great basketball mind and he’s always learning. He’s a student of the game.” Hall is always looking to pick someone’s brain, especially when it’s someone he admires. Four years after claiming his second CIF championship in the 1994-95 season, Hall took a sabbatical and served as an assistant at Los Angeles City College and later at Occidental College, learning from standout coaches such as Jim Hennacy and Brian Newhall. He briefly returned to Poly for one season in 2000-01 but focused on his college basketball duties from 2001-2005. “I got to see that world [of collegiate basketball], and there are no coaches better than Jim and Brian,” Hall said. Such an experience broadened Hall’s perspective and philosophy regarding the sport, as did opportunities to speak to legendary UCLA coach John Wooden and San Antonio Spurs coach and executive Greg Popovich, a five-time NBA champion and winningest coach in NBA history. “I mean, these are legends,” Hall said. “I got to sit down with them and talk to them, and they were nice to me. It was just incredible.” Hall returned to Poly for the 2005-06 campaign and picked up where he left off with back-to-back Prep League championships. However, the high school basketball landscape wasn’t the same, and the Poly coach doubted he’d ever reach a CIF title game again in his career. “That was kind of the era where things changed,” Hall recalled. “Starting in 2000, you’re starting to see schools with a lot of transfers and recruiting athletes. I never thought we’d have a chance to win CIF again. We had an outstanding team in 2010-11 with Hunter Merryman and Daniel Wohl, but it was difficult.” Hall, along with every other high school athletics coach in the state, faced an even bigger challenge this year. After much uncertainty due to COVID-19, the state gave the green light for high school athletics to resume activities in March, but indoor sports’ athletes and coaches had to be tested before each contest and spectators were not allowed in the gymnasium. “We didn’t start the season with the goal to win CIF,” Hall said. “The goal was to see if we can play just a couple of games. Let’s see if the seniors can get a little bit of an experience. I was just worried about finishing .500.” The Panthers got the experience of a lifetime this year despite the obstacles and won the league championship with a perfect 6-0 record. With fewer than 400 high school students, Polytechnic went on to defeat big public schools such as Whittier Pioneer, South El Monte and Wildomar Elsinore in its stellar postseason run. “You used to play more schools your size, but we had Pioneer and South El Monte with 1,200 students, Elsinore had 2,100 students and Arcadia with 3,100,” Hall said. “We have 380. If you would have told me in the first part of my career that I’d be playing the runner-up of the Pacific League in a CIF championship game, I would have laughed.” The win against Arcadia not only served as a reminder of his talent as a coach, but of his storied legacy at Poly. Former Panthers from as far back as the 1970s attended the game and congratulated the longtime coach, who was emotional after seeing such a turnout. “That game was kind of the first event for me in the school year that felt normal,” he said. “There was a crowd. Everyone had their obstacles, but these poor seniors, from March of their junior year through senior year, had no normalcy. Here we are playing in the summer with alumni in the stands and people cheering. It was fun. It was a nice bookend.”