Building a Champion: Harvey Kitani and the Art of Patience

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Photo by Deanna Garcia. Art by Brandi Baggarley

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Next up in Frank Burlison’s Coaches Series: Legendary Fairfax High School (and now Rolling Hills Prep) head coach, Harvey Kitani

Somewhere there may be more congestion-choked highways than those that are found in Southern California. But just don’t try convincing those who daily navigate say, the 405, 110, 101 or 5 Freeways at rush-hour – which can be at just about at any hour, as Harvey Kitani can attest.

Last spring Kitani stepped down as the basketball coach at Fairfax High, which is located at the corner of Melrose and Fairfax in Los Angeles, right on the cusp of West Hollywood. There is no easy way to get to Fairfax High, as Kitani will quickly attest: He spent 35 years of wear and tear, on tires and his patience, navigating the daily trek to the school whose basketball program won 773 games under his guidance – four of those in Los Angeles City championship contests and two more (in 2004 and ’07) in California State championship affairs.

“I’d usually spend at least a total of two and a half hours driving daily, to and from our house in Torrance,” Kitani recalled without a single hint of nostalgia – about the drives, at least. “I’d set my alarm for 5:15 in the morning, wake up, hop in the shower, get dressed and grab a cup of coffee on the road.”

The evolution of cellular phone communications in the mid-1990s created an avenue to take advantage of the car-locked time on freeways, but only soothed some of the aggravation of seeing brake lights constantly lighting up in front of you like so many flashing Christmas tree lights.

The 61 year-old Kitani may have “retired” from coaching and teaching at Fairfax last spring. But his daily coaching regimen, now at Rolling Hills Preparatory School in San Pedro, hasn’t changed a lot in the past few months. Those daily drives from Torrance to the gymnasium and classrooms where he plies his trade have, however.

“Now I get up at 6:15 in the morning, take a shower, eat breakfast, read the newspaper and feed the animals (Coco is the name of  the dog; Tiger’s the cat),” he said, describing his pre-drive to school routine. “It’s a lot less driving – and a lot less stress.”

If he was going to bid adieu to the school he spent so long at – so long, he worked for six different principals, including Ed Cheatham, who hired him – and the program he built and maintained at such a high level of success, there had to be more reasons that just the elimination of a lot of drive-time anxiety.

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Kitani was forced to learn on the job, and quickly, after being named head coach at Fairfax at age 26 (LA Times)

In the opportunity presented by Rolling Hills Prep – located just 12 minutes, by car, from the Kitani household – he found all of them. His sons, Grant and Trent, are a senior and freshman, respectively, at UCLA (where Grant is a manager for Coach Steve Alford’s basketball program) and are Rolling Hills Prep graduates. His wife, Shannon, and is a long-time educator and currently an administrator at Rolling Hills Prep (she also beat their sons to the punch as a Bruins’ alum).

Over the course of his sons’ high school stretches, he got to know and admire the school’s administrators and the institution’s educational goals – in and out of the classroom. “Over the course of the past few years I had some other chances (to coach elsewhere),” Kitani said. “But this was too good of an opportunity (to pass up) and I had to take advantage of it. I’m ‘retired’ (he’s collecting retirement compensation accrued from those 35 years as a teacher in the L.A. Unified School District) but still get to coach.”

Mind you, stepping down from Fairfax was anything but the proverbial “slam dunk” decision for Kitani. It was more along the lines of, say, a heavily contested jump shot with the shot clock winding down in the late going of a championship game. “The toughest thing about leaving is the feelings you have about all of the relationships you develop with so many school personnel over 35 years,” he said. “It’s a great school and place to work because it has great leadership and attracts so many great kids from different backgrounds from a lot of different areas because they want to go there. It really is a unique situation.”

Kitani is a graduate of Gardena High (also located near Torrance, where he grew up) who was on the coaching path very early on. His uncle, Dave Yanai, was already a coaching legend in Southern California by way of highly successful stints at L.A. Fremont High and then at Cal State Los Angeles and Cal Dominguez Hills, when Kitani caught the coaching bug.

“I watched his team’s games and practices all the time,” he said of Yanai. “He’s the reason I got into coaching and is a mentor to a whole lot of other coaches, too.”

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Fairfax took home the National Division championship at the Under Armour Holiday Classic in 2015 (Anna Scipione)

After graduating with a degree in physical education at Long Beach State, he went to work on a Master’s in Education at CSLA. While still in college, he had stints as the junior varsity coach at Banning High in near-by Wilmington and then at Carson High (in Carson, which, like Wilmington and Gardena, is just a few blocks removed from Torrance).

By the time he was 25, it was 1981 and he was hired to teach and be the junior varsity coach at Fairfax. A year later he replaced Marty Biegel as the varsity head coach.

At the pace he was picking up coaching and teaching experience (he spent two years as a substitute teacher at Carson and another at San Fernando High), he wasn’t sure how long he’d be at Fairfax. “I thought I’d give myself 10 years (as a coach) and see how it goes,” Kitani said of that first season as the varsity head coach of the Lions. He laughed. “Then one morning I woke up and I was in my 10th year there,” he said.

There were two L.A. City championships (’85 and ’87) in that stretch, which also included the start of a run of terrific players he helped develop with the Lions, including future NBA players Sean Higgins, Chris Mills, Craig Smith and, of most recent vintage, Solomon Hill of the New Orleans Pelicans.

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Kitani accepts the Under Armour Holiday Classic championship trophy from Torrey Pines head coach John Olive (Anna Scipione)

But more than all of the championships and all of the coaching “battles” he had during that time with some of the best in the business – including Gary McKnight at Santa Ana Mater Dei and Ed Azzam, his former Gardena High and LBSU classmate and the coach on the opposing bench in so many Fairfax-Westchester confrontations – what Kitani most recalls fondly about those 35 years are the players.

“I think about guys like Jerome Jenkins – he’s the head coach at Santa Monica City College now – and of the ‘Shipp brothers’, Joe, Josh and Jerred. You couldn’t ask for better guys to coach and be around. “And Jamal Boykin (an all-L.A. selection who played for and graduated from UC Berkeley and plays professionally in Japan) – to see him grow from a high school freshman to an outstanding man, it’s amazing. He speaks at my camps every summer and we were able to go to his wedding.”

Andre Durity (an all-City guard for Kitani who graduated in 1988) “is a district manager for Colonial (Penn) Life Insurance,” he added. “He’d come by ever summer, give me a check (donation to the program) and say ‘thank you, coach’.”

Those are the things that make the long drives over 35 years bearable.

He hopes to cull those same kind of relationships and memories at Rolling Hills Prep, which has enjoyed some success under previous coaches (including the school’s current athletic director who hired Kitani, Brian Knigin) but on a much smaller scale of competition.

But, as Kitani and so many other real coaches – you know, the guys who understand that “coaching” isn’t just about winning games and producing “scholarship players” and “pros” but impacting lives and teaching how the game should be played but too frequently isn’t – understand this: coaching, as a profession, should be the same, regardless of where you’re doing it at and who you’re coaching.

“Whether you’re coaching a kid who can be a McDonald’s All-American or just an average intramural player,” he said, “the fundamental foundations of your relationships and what you’re trying to teach are the same. You want them committed, listening and working hard and to be ‘all in’ for the journey you take as a team.”

 

 

 

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