As the Donahue Gym at Berkeley High School exploded in thunderous applause during the host school’s 63-14 win over El Cerrito High on Feb. 16, it was not the game that was the center of everyone’s attention, but the man who helped win it.
Coach Gene “Nak” Nakamura, who had coached the Berkeley High girls’ basketball team for the last 25 years, retired that day, following his school’s last basketball game of the season.
As students, parents, teachers and administrators gathered around Coach Nak to hug him and bid him farewell, he shot a parting word of advice to his team.
“Move your feet,” he said. “Come on Yellow Jackets, you know you can do it.”
Watching Nakamura in action with his team is like watching a tiger keep guard over his cubs. Fierce yet gentle, he stays with his students throughout the game and offers them advice from the sidelines.
An alumni of the Berkeley High School Class of ‘62, Nakamura has dedicated 37 years of his life as a teacher and an administrator in the Berkeley Unified School District.
Under him, the BHS girls’ basketball team went on to become Division I State Champions twice and Division I Northern California Champions seven times, with the most recent win in 2006.
Coach Nak, as he is called, was named the 1997 NCS Honor Coach and 2006 BUSD educator of the year. He has a record of a total of 550 career wins.
“A phenomenal human being and an exceptional coach,” was how School Board Director John Selawsky described Nakamura at the basketball game.
Selawsky, an avid basketball fan himself, said that he had known Nakamura ever since he had started working with the school district.
“He’s been a vice principal at Willard and an administrator at Longfellow,” he said. “He’s great with the kids and great with the administrators and a great asset to the girls’ basketball team. He’s just one of my favorite people.”
Christine Glencher, athletic director at Berkeley High, said that Nakamura would be sorely missed.
“When you think of girls’ basketball at BHS, you think of Coach Nak. Every tournament he goes to, people listen to him. Even high-level college and university coaches respect Nak. He is incredibly charismatic.”
Coach to some, mentor to others, hundreds of BHS alumni were present at the gym that day to shake hands with Nak.
“They are not going to be able to replace him,” said Chris Lim, superintendent of the San Leandro school district and a former colleague of Nakamura in Berkeley.
“I had only one disagreement with him when I was principal at Willard. He wanted to do Saturday school,” she said smiling.
As the girls’ team cheered Nak and offered him roses on the basketball court, current and former students shared memories with each other.
“Nak is great. He teaches us everything. How to jump up, dunk the ball, you know all the moves. I am going to miss him a lot,” said Taylor Wallace, a ninth grader who was waiting to get her picture taken with her coach.
Loren Nakamura, Nak’s daughter, described her dad as both a great father and a great coach.
“He’s harder as a coach though, more critical,” she said grinning.
Born in Colorado, where his father taught Japanese at the University of Colorado during WWII, Nakamura moved to Berkeley for high school and received his teacher’s credentials from California State Hayward.
Basketball, Nak said, was something he picked up when he was teaching his daughters how to play church ball for the Asian Church League.
“I was teaching 8th grade at Willard in 1981 when BHS girls’ coach Stelton Mitchell asked me to become the junior varsity girls’ basketball coach. The very next year the boys’ head coach retired and Stelton took over his position, leaving me as the girls’ head coach,” he said.
Nak admits that girls are easier to coach than boys.
“They are more willing to listen, and they have no ego,” he said. “But it’s a tough sport and you need to have the ability to play hard all through the game. In the process of playing above the rim, the fundamentals are sometimes forgotten.”
Team manger Rebecca Amissah—who couldn’t try out for the team because of a leg injury—said that Nakamura always involved her in the game.
“He treats me as one of the players and lets me go everywhere,” she said. “Coach Nak is more than a coach. He helps us with schoolwork and even talks to our teachers if need be. I hope he comes back to coach us soon.”
Nakamura however decided that Friday’s game would be the last one of his career.
“Basketball is my life but it is not my whole life,” he said. “If I ever come back to coaching, it will be to coach my grandkids.”