Kitani’s focus is on more than winning
In the dead silence of a deserted P.E. office, Coach Harvey Kitani phoned home a year ago with bad news. His Fairfax High boys’ basketball team, seeded No. 1 in the City Section playoffs, had just been eliminated by Westchester in the semifinals.
Kitani’s 8-year-old son, Trent, started to cry. It was tough enough only minutes earlier, when Kitani was consoling a group of dejected players.
“Kids just know that we didn’t win,” he said.
Kids, teenagers, even adults sometimes have trouble understanding that high school sports is more than winning championships, and Kitani’s 26-year coaching journey at Fairfax helps drive that point home.
In 1987, Fairfax, led by future NBA players Chris Mills and Sean Higgins, helped Kitani win his first and only championship in the upper division of the City playoffs. Six times since, the Lions have lost in the City final.
“Yes, we’re disappointed, because in the eyes of everyone, unless you win it, you’re not the champion,” he said. “But for me, I felt it was fun doing all the things we did.
“When I got into coaching, it wasn’t to win a championship. It was because I enjoyed doing it. After the game, the beat goes on. You move on to the next thing.”
In 1995, after Fairfax lost to Crenshaw in the City final, Kitani’s first son, Grant, was born the next day. Lose one, win one.
But there’s no hiding the pain and frustration of coming up short. No City final loss has bothered Kitani more than the one in 2004, when Woodland Hills Taft and Jordan Farmar overcame a seven-point deficit in the final 3 1/2 minutes to beat the heavily favored Lions.
“You know what,” Kitani said, “it took that game for all of us to learn about playing with even more focus. We were in the locker room in the Sports Arena feeling about as bad as you possibly could. The kids are getting ready to leave. We all waited for each other, and I think at that moment it started to really set in about walking out together. All we had at that time was, really, each other.”
The 2004 team, led by Josh Shipp, recovered from its City final defeat that season to win the state Division I championship.
Shipp, a starter on UCLA’s No. 2-ranked basketball team, said of Kitani, “His main thing is being a good person. That was what he was most proud of.”
Once again, Fairfax is in the City Championship game. The top-seeded Lions (22-5) will face their Western League nemesis, Westchester (23-5), in Saturday’s 6 p.m. game at the Sports Arena.
Westchester has lost twice to Fairfax this season, just like last season. But Westchester has been unbeatable in the playoffs this decade, winning 27 consecutive games and six City titles. Fairfax lost to the Comets in the championship game in 2002, 2003 and 2005, not to mention last year’s crushing semifinal defeat.
“It hurts. It hurts a lot,” All-City forward Chace Stanback said. “In the past three years, I’ve been in a lot of games where we came out on the bad side. You always want to win in your senior year. But it’s the hard work you have to put in.”
Stanback, Ja’Shon Hampton and Rod Singleton are Fairfax’s three seniors who have been denied the opportunity to experience a City title celebration and they want to change that.
“In past years, I guess the teams just thought they could come in and win,” Stanback said. “My freshman year, we thought we had it won. This year, we have to come out hard and not take anything for granted.”
Kitani talks about the development of his three seniors like a proud father.
“This team, as far as toughness and character, could be the best team because of the seniors,” he said. “Those three guys are really carrying people.
“They all had to wait their turns. It’s tremendous character when you have to wait your turn, especially when you have people talking in their ear, ‘You ought to go here to play right away.’ These three guys have been remarkably resilient and tough-minded through their career.”
Resilient and tough-minded are also the words that best describe Kitani.
In 1979, he was given his first coaching job at San Fernando. He lasted only one season because an enrollment drop took away his teaching position. Even then, he was making an impact.
Last December, a player from that first team, Elgin Walker, wrote a letter to Kitani.
“After all these years, I still call you coach,” Walker wrote. “I am now 42 and there are still plenty of days I reflect on lessons I learned from you.... I just want you to know what a positive effect you had on my life, because people do not let people know that enough. I hope your kids, past, present and future, realize how lucky they are to have you.”
Kitani understands that championships make everyone feel good, but it’s letters from former players like Walker that reveal whether a coach has truly made a difference.
Eric Sondheimer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.