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Taft High basketball gets old-school coaching lift from Yutaka Shimizu

If Taft High wins its third City Division I title Saturday against Westchester, it will be due in part to the quiet counsel of assistant coach Yutaka Shimizu, an institution in Los Angeles high school basketball.

March 04, 2011|Eric Sondheimer

Woodland Hills Taft Coach Derrick Taylor was in Louisville, Ky., four years ago coaching the West team in the McDonald's All-American game when he walked into a room for breakfast with assistant coach Yutaka Shimizu.

Suddenly, a familiar voice spoke up.

"Coach Shimizu."

It was John Wooden.

"That's when you know you're the man, when the ultimate coach calls you over," Taylor said.

For 52 years, Shimizu has been coaching basketball, mostly at the high school level in Los Angeles. He has made it through 11 U.S. presidents, though don't ask him to name them.

"Heck no, I wouldn't be able to answer that," said Shimizu, who declined to reveal his age.

He never won a City title at Hamilton, where he was head coach from 1959-81, or at Granada Hills Kennedy, where he was head coach from 1982-99. He made it to the championship game when his best player, Sidney Wicks, was a sophomore in 1965. But since joining Taft as a volunteer assistant in 2003, he has helped the Toreadors win two City Division I titles, and a third could come on Saturday, when the Toreadors face Westchester in a 1 p.m. final at USC's Galen Center.

"He's my man," Taylor said. "It's more than coincidence when he came on we took off."

He serves as Taylor's Yoda, using his wisdom and experience to make observations and suggestions.

"He showed me how to structure practice and how to move on," Taylor said.

Shimizu has been coaching for so long that last week, he faced one of his ex-Hamilton players, James Paleno, who has been the longtime coach at Palisades and who bought a used car from Shimizu years ago.

Just as the car still works, so does Shimizu.

"I'll keep going as long as I can, as long as my health holds out and somebody wants my help," he said.

To say that Shimizu is old school would be an understatement.

He doesn't use a computer and he has no understanding of text messages.

"The only thing I use is an adding machine," he said.

Said Paleno: "Why should he need a computer? He has everything in his brain."

Teaching fundamentals and getting his players ready for games through practice are what he believes in.

Former North Hollywood Coach Steve Miller tells the story of a Hamilton game he officiated in the 1970s. The score was tied, and a Hamilton player called a timeout with 15 seconds left after a rebound.

"I walked over," Miller said, "looked at Shimizu and he's standing there and turns to his captain, 'Why did you call timeout? I don't want a timeout. I don't know what to tell you. You guys go make up a play.' I went over to him, 'Why don't you make the play?' He says, 'I wouldn't know what to say and they wouldn't listen to me.' The kid gets the ball, dribbles down, seven seconds left, drives and scores. Hamilton wins. I go, 'Great call, coach.' He says, 'I had nothing to do with it.' "

A player stepped up with leadership to win the game. That's what Shimizu wanted.

Shimizu stays in the background these days. He hasn't blown a whistle during practice in years. It's buried in a holder in his car. He sits quietly during games near the Taft bench, watching and letting Taylor do his thing.

"His style is a little different than mine," he said, referring to Taylor's sometimes fiery demeanor. "He's the head coach, I'm the assistant. Whatever he decides, that's what we do. He's very knowledgeable about the game, and to me, he likes to be offensive-oriented and gets along with the kids very well."

If anyone brought together a group of former Hamilton players and someone yelled out, "41," all would know what it means — the signal to full-court press. Ex-players don't forget what they learned under Shimizu.

"He's a phenomenal person," Paleno said.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATSondheimer

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