Vejas Anaya may have big shoes to fill, but at 6’6”, his powerful presence will immediately be felt by the Palisades High boys basketball program. The 1997 PaliHi graduate is just the school’s third head coach, taking over for the departed James Paleno this season after Paleno compiled a 416-172 record in 22 seasons as a head coach after taking over for Jerry Marvin in 1991.
An assistant coach under Paleno last year and special education teacher at Pali since 2008, Anaya faces many uncertainties regarding his roster, as only four spots are set with returning with seniors. But after the difficult conditions he faced during his childhood in Lithuania, there isn’t much that phases the 34-year-old.
Born in California, Anaya attended Rosewood Elementary in Santa Monica before his family moved to Sweden in 1988 when he was nine. A year later, the family moved to England before settling in Lithuania in 1990.
His mother was the co-founder of the reestablished Vytautas Magnus University and his father taught at the Art Academy. After Lithuania declared its independence, Anaya’s mother founded Lithuania’s first independent television network, “Tele-3,” during a time when television was state-controlled. As a result, “there was a target on our backs, with threats of violence,” Anaya recalled.
“Our house was broken into one evening when I was home alone, and luckily I escaped and later learned certain survival skills along the way,” Anaya said.
Making matters worse was the way the country’s residents were forced to spend the sub-zero winters without hot water and minimal indoor heating. Lithuanians were given vouchers for food, gasoline and other necessities, forcing people to brave long lines.
Fortunately, basketball served as Anaya’s saving grace, as he was selected to be a part of the prestigious Sarunas Marciulionis Basketball School.
“Basketball was much more than just a game [at that time in Lithuania],” Anaya said. “Carefully selected players were taught to become ambassadors for an emerging independent nation. The teachings of basketball skills and tactics were combined with lessons in ethics, media interaction and culture as well as daily development of individual character attributes.”
Once he returned to the U.S. in 1993 – his family lived in Santa Monica while he attended PaliHi – Anaya’s skills were quite polished were a six-foot freshman. He spent his freshman year on the JV squad before becoming a full-time varsity starter as a forward/center playing under Paleno. In his junior season, the Dolphins went 24-3 and reached the City semifinals before falling to eventual State champion Crenshaw on a buzzer-beater shot in double overtime.
Anaya received a number of scholarship offers to play college basketball, including at the University of Hawaii with his best friend and PaliHi teammate, Phil Czernin. As Czernin would go to Hawaii (ultimately transferring to Loyola Marymount), Anaya had always had his sights set on UCLA, basketball or not.
Anaya enrolled at UCLA and attempted to join the basketball team as a walk-on, but injuries derailed him and he transferred to Santa Rosa Junior College, where he continued to play for two years before returning to UCLA to graduate in 2002.
Opportunities overseas opened up for Anaya, first in 2002-03 with the Klosterneuburg Dukes of Austria and then for a half-season in 2004 with Pyrinto KTP of Finland. But by that point, playing basketball had run its course for Anaya, who changed his focus.
He returned to California to receive his masters degree from Cal State Northridge in special education and was hired by PaliHi in 2008, where he taught alongside Paleno. He coached the freshman/sophomore team for three years and then was recruited to assist on Perry Jones’ football staff in 2012. He had consulted at times for Paleno, whom he worked with in special education.
Last season, Anaya worked closely with twin post players Dakota and Colton Chambers, two of eight seniors departed from last season’s team that went 23-10 and won the school’s first-ever state playoff game. Paleno compiled a 416-172 record in 22 seasons as head coach after taking over for Jerry Marvin in 1991.
“I don’t feel pressure,” said Anaya, who added that he is looking forward to facing coaches he played against in high school. “I feel enthusiasm. I feel like we’re in an opportune situation as a program, and with our commitment to building on last year’s success, we’re going to do well.
“I can promise that we’re going to be in shape. Superior conditioning and tough defense have always been the cornerstones of any successful basketball teams that I’ve been a part of. Coach Marvin was a disciplinarian, and Coach Paleno brought levity to the program. Personally as a coach, I’m a little bit of both and can only hope to be as successful as they both were.”
The only absolutes with Anaya’s roster right now are his four seniors: Wings Aaron Johnson and Louis Kurihara and stretch forwards Elias Etaat and Zane Zeder. Everything else will resolve itself on August 21, when Anaya says he is expecting the school’s largest-ever basketball tryout.
True to Anaya’s personal philosophy, basketball will only be part of his coaching equation.
“I completely recognize that the position of head basketball coach is one of much more than simply being a teacher of athletic skills, especially with the expectations that the PaliHi community has of its student-athletes and young citizens,” Anaya said. “I’m looking forward to using this platform to help my athletes continue to grow as people through academic achievement, behavioral excellence and community service.”