As the buzzer sounded to signal the end of a timeout during Wednesday’s game against Cleveland High, members of the Kennedy basketball team gathered along their bench in a show of unity.
All 12 players and two assistant coaches joined hands and chanted words of encouragement, while off to the side sat a solitary figure with his head bent downward, impassive eyes staring from an impenetrable countenance.
The man apart is Yutaka Shimizu, Kennedy’s coach. For 29 years as a high school coach, including the past six at Kennedy, colleagu e s, players and opponents have tried to fathom that look.
“In City coaching circles, his name is up there with the elite coaches,” Cleveland Coach Bob Braswell said of Shimizu. “Everybody knows him but they don’t really know him. We laughed and joked before the game, but he doesn’t let you in too much. He doesn’t let anyone get too close.”
Shim, as he is known to almost everyone, is a personable, friendly man who has become a quiet institution among L. A. City coaches during a career that began at Hamilton in 1959 when he was fresh out of Cal State Los Angeles. Of the 49 City basketball coaches, only Jerry Marvin at Palisades has been around longer.
This season Shimizu’s acumen is as sharp as ever. Kennedy is tied for second in the Valley League with Cleveland at 3-1 and enters tonight’s game against Fairfax, the defending City 4-A Division champion, with an 11-1 overall record. The Golden Cougars started the season with 11 consecutive wins, the longest streak in school history and in Shimizu’s career. Not even his Hamilton teams of the mid-1960s that included former NBA player Sidney Wicks matched that streak.
But for all his longevity, Shimizu still leads the league in mystery. He presents a laid-back front on game day but remains intensely private about his personal life. Few have been able to crack the surface.
Clarence Williams, Kennedy’s 6-5 senior center and team captain, shook his head and smiled when asked to describe his coach.
“I don’t know how,” he said. “He keeps to himself. Ever since I’ve been going to Kennedy, no one knows about the coach, not the players, the staff or the teachers.”
Shimizu’s persona presents a rash of riddles.
He stands only 5 feet, 5 inches and is middle-aged, but he still plays pickup games with his players, who rave about his defense. But players are forbidden from calling him Shim, and he steadfastly refuses to reveal his age or any information about his wife and family.
He is widely regarded among the City’s most astute coaches and twice has traveled to Japan to conduct basketball seminars. He is a traditionalist and a John Wooden disciple who swears by the fundamentals, yet he consistently deploys unorthodox defensive alignments.
In last week’s 72-65 win over Taft, he ordered his players to ignore two Taft starters and let them go unguarded, a successful ploy that left Taft Coach Jim Woodard shaking his head in admiration. It was not the first time he had been Shim-med.
“Shim was the first one to figure out how to play Kevin Franklin,” Woodard said, referring to last season’s leading scorer in the Valley. “Everyone said you can’t zone Taft, but we knew that was the way to play us and Shim figured it out. Kennedy beat us and held Kevin to 10 points. In every other league game, he scored 30 or more. Shim’s a smart coach.”
Shimizu is good for at least one upset a season but has yet to master postseason play. In five consecutive appearances, Kennedy has suffered quick exits in the playoffs and his Hamilton teams never won a City title.
He screams and yells in practice but prides himself on self-control and lack of expression during games. He counts numerous former players among his friends, but intentionally distances himself from his current players. He is friendly and courteous with other coaches but seems to keep all at arm’s length.
“When he sees you at a gym he always sits and talks,” El Camino Real Coach Mike McNulty said. “There are coaches you don’t care to sit next to in a gym, but he’s always a pleasure to see.”
Shimizu also maintains what he calls a “social distance” from his players.
“I’ve never gotten close to my players,” he said. “I may ask guys to do things that are unpleasant in practice and I think it’s easier to ask them if you’re not buddy-buddy. I’m not saying we’re not going to be friends. Once a kid has graduated that’s a whole different thing.”
Harold Brown, a volunteer assistant and father of team member Randy, thinks Shimizu would benefit from a more personal touch.
“Some players would like to get close to him, but maybe he doesn’t know how to get close to them,” Brown said. “I think they would respond even more. He can keep everybody else out if he chooses to, but sometimes a player wants to know that a coach cares about him.”
Perhaps it should not be surprising that Shimizu remains mysterious. He has traveled an unusual path to become the veteran of Valley-area basketball coaches. Certainly, none of his colleagues have spent time in a concentration camp--in the United States.
Shimizu is a second-generation Japanese-American--a Nisei--who was born in Los Angeles. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II, the Shimizu family was swept up in the war hysteria and sent to Wyoming as part of the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast.
Shimizu spent three years in Heart Mountain, Wyo., living in what he remembers as small huts with other displaced Japanese-Americans.
After V-J Day, the Shimizus returned briefly to Los Angeles before moving to suburban Ohio where the teen-aged Yutaka used sports to break cultural barriers with his white, middle-class schoolmates.
His best sports were football and baseball but he became a gym rat, often sneaking into locked gymnasiums by slipping through uncovered coal chutes.
After graduation from West Carrollton High outside Dayton, he and his family returned to Los Angeles where he earned a bachelor’s degree and got his first coaching job at Hamilton.
Shimizu talks about World War II and his family’s internment with great reluctance. It’s a memory he would like to lose.
“I hope all that stuff could be washed aside and buried,” he said. “I just want to draw a blank. I’m not outraged or bitter. I just want to wash it from my mind.”
But the memory dies hard.
“I know it’s in the history books and it can’t be erased. But it was a painful time and I want to separate myself from the feelings,” he said.
Shimizu insists the experience wasn’t unbearable for him. He was young and had little on his mind except joining his playmates as much as possible. “It’s nothing political when you’re just a kid,” he said.
Only later, through conversations with friends, did the reality of what happened set in. But he never talked about it with his parents, who are no longer alive.
“It’s just a guess because we never talked about it, but I don’t think they were outraged,” he said. “They were uncomfortable with being considered enemies of the United States and it was more of a shame thing. They figured you just had to do the best you could in whatever circumstances you were in.”
Shimizu said he bears no grudges and has adopted a forgiving attitude toward his country.
“I can’t get into people’s heads, but I’m sure they had their reasons for the internment,” he said. “The war hysteria created a lot of pressure and people make mistakes. If you can’t forgive, that’s a terrible thing to carry around. I can’t think of a better place to live than the U. S. I think that’s the answer for any question you can have about it.”
But just when he appears to be revealing himself, Shimizu adds to the mystery surrounding him. He talked about his influences as a coach, putting Wooden at the top of the list. Their paths crossed when the former UCLA coach recruited Wicks out of Hamilton, and Shimizu has worked in the Wooden summer basketball camp at Cal Lutheran for 15 years.
But he described one other influence, saying the person is a winner and a competitor who helped him develop an understanding of people. He also wished the association a long life.
He gave no name.
“Maybe everyone will read this and think, ‘Maybe it’s me,’ or ‘Maybe it isn’t me,’ ” he said. “It’s another piece of the puzzle. Anyway, I simply want to say thanks, because I like the simple things.”