Lucas Bitonio

Lucas Bitonio and the Bruins are on the brink of Wilson's first playoff appearance in several years.

Long Beach Wilson senior Lucas Bitonio can lay claim to many honors. The 6-foot-8 center is certainly one of the tallest students to don the Bruins’ student uniform this year, and one of the tallest athletes anywhere in the Moore League. He’s also probably the biggest Cleveland Browns fan in the city of Long Beach, with a flag flying proudly from the house in East Long Beach that he and his mother Debbie call home, and a Browns sticker on his car as well.

The last part is easy to explain: Lucas’ older brother Joel is a former Wilson football and basketball star who’s currently a stud lineman for the Browns, having just finished year three of his four-year deal.

“Everyone in my family has his jersey but me,” said Lucas. “I have a few Browns shirts though, we’re always rooting for the Browns. We’ve got Sunday Ticket and we watch every game.”

He said there are more fans of the team in Long Beach than one might expect, although when they approach he and his family there’s sometimes an air of suspicion, as though the flag with the big orange helmet on it might be some kind of a joke.

“They’ll come up and say, ‘Hey I’m a Browns fan too—why are you a Browns fan?’” said Lucas. “It actually happens a lot.”

The tight-knit relationship between Joel and Lucas spans a few thousand miles, and hasn’t gotten any thinner since Joel was drafted three years ago. The two talk on the phone frequently and Joel’s become an expert at tracking down local news coverage of his little brother.

“It’s been tough this year because I haven’t been able to get back for his senior year,” said Joel, who had a season-ending injury in Week 5 last season that’s forcing him to stay in Cleveland to rehab post-surgery. “We talk a lot and I’ve been able to check out all the coverage of the team. Plus my mom will text me updates and let me know how the refs are doing.”

“It’s been hard not having him here but we talk about all the games so it’s like he’s still here,” said Lucas.

The two brothers aren’t close in age (they’re eight years apart) or in height any longer (Lucas caught his big brother three years ago and is now four inches taller than his All-Pro sibling). Their relationship is tight, though, in part because of a shared loss. Their father, Mike Bitonio, passed away seven years ago, while Lucas was just 11 and Joel was at Nevada getting ready for football season.

“We bonded over it,” said Lucas. “It was a really difficult time. We went out a lot after, we went to as many games at Nevada as possible, he’d come to my games, we stayed as close as possible.”

For Joel, worried about his little brother but unable to see him every day because of his college season, sports became a helpful way to reach out and make sure Lucas was okay.

“It makes it easier to connect when you’re going through something like that,” said Joel. “It’s easier to ask him about practice or a game instead of just thinking about life and how hard it is.”

The first time Joel said he felt like things were normal that year was when Debbie and Lucas came to a Nevada game later that season. The family has always shown up for each other’s games in big ways, but suddenly being in the stands became an even more important show of support.

For both of them, sports also became a safe haven.

“While you’re playing you just forget about what’s going on in the world,” said Joel.

Lucas has helped first-year head coach James Boykin lead a turnaround of the Wilson boys basketball team, as the Bruins are 10-5 and 4-6 in the Moore League, already their best mark since the 2010-11 season.

This week Lucas and the Bruins will face Jordan and Lakewood this week a pair of must-win games. With fellow post Matt Schmidt anchoring the middle and guards like Semaj Parker and the Monh twins, Verak and Pektra, Wilson could be on the brink of a mini-milestone. If the Bruins can come up with a pair of victories they’ll likely be the first Bruins basketball team to make the playoffs in seven years, and just the second team to make the playoffs since Joel was anchoring the paint for Wilson in 2008-09.

“We all know what’s on the line and we’ve been thinking about it,” said Lucas. “We want to get there.”

Sports Guy Mike Guardabascio has been writing professionally for a decade, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards and is the author of the historical book "Football in Long Beach."

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