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."