By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor _
There are precious few names whose lives transcend sport to the point of becoming shining examples of who we’d all hope to be as people.
Among them: Jackie Robinson. Billie Jean King. Muhammad Ali. Roberto Clemente. John Wooden.
To be mentioned in a connecting context, in the same breath with these people and others is not merely a compliment, it’s an honor of humility.
“It’s incredibly humbling,” said Dave Yanai, after being announced earlier this month as the 2021 recipient of the prestigious John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching Award.
“I stand on his shoulders and the shoulders of my parents and mentors,” said the famed former basketball coach, the first from NCAA Division II to receive the honor.
“My whole life, I am lucky to have been blessed with so many people who have been supportive throughout this journey, beginning with my mentor Pete Newell and John Wooden,” Yanai said at the L.A. Athletic Club in Downtown, at what in a normal year would have been the organization’s Wooden Awards and Tip-Off Luncheon ahead of the new college basketball season.
This being 2020, however, the event was held virtually amid the ongoing pandemic that has at least postponed college basketball for the near future.
The Legends of Coaching Award recognizes the lifetime achievement of coaches who exemplify the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach’s high standards of coaching success and personal achievement. When selecting the individual, the Wooden Award Committee considers a coach’s character, success rate on the court, graduating rate of student-athletes, his coaching philosophy and his identification with the goals of the John R. Wooden Award.
Yanai now joins the company of coaching legends including Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, Pat Summitt, Lute Olson, Tara Vanderveer and Steve Fisher.
The first Japanese American head coach of a college program at any level in the U.S., Yanai spent 19 seasons at Cal State Dominguez Hills, guiding the Toros to three NCAA tournaments and the 1979 NAIA District III championship.
Yanai then moved across town and headed the Cal State L.A. men’s team for 10 years, during which the Golden Eagles earned two NCAA berths and their 84 wins from 1997- 2001 marks the winningest five-year span in CSULA history.
While there, he became only the second coach in the California Collegiate Athletic Association to reach 400 wins, and over his career amassed a slew of honors that includes a pair of conference CCAA Coach of the Year awards.
Speaking with Craig Impelman, Wooden’s grandson-in-law, while taping a segment for the virtual luncheon, Yanai spent little time discussing basketball. Instead, he shared personal memories of Wooden, Newell, players and assistant coaches over the years.
“Beginning with coaches Newell, Wooden and including others I met, they taught me to always share my knowledge, which became ingrained in my coaching philosophy, to look at the bigger picture and always think about ways to help others,” he explained. “I tried to do the best I could for all those kids we had at Dominguez Hills and Cal State LA and my high school teams. I was lucky to be at the right places at the right times.”
After the taped interview, Yanai spoke with The Rafu about how basketball, perhaps more than most other sports, presents a wealth of teachable moments for coaches.
“For one, basketball is a very fast-paced sport. It’s fun to play, and with all the things that happen so quickly … there are snippets to teach things like working hard, because it’s quick to see what happens when you don’t work hard,” he said.
“To me, basketball is the ultimate team game. You have five players who have to play both offense and defense, so if you’re not connected as a team, the whole group suffers. You need to talk on the court, and I would tell the players it shows me what you’re thinking, because when you talk, you’re thinking out loud and it shows me what’s going on in your head.
“All these moments in basketball to teach, pick ourselves up after a loss, or a single bad play, show how there’s no time to cry over the spilt milk. We need to get on with the next play. Life is like that, and we need to pick ourselves up and get on with the business of being a good human being.”
Yanai echoed Wooden’s lifelong philosophy of basketball as a vehicle to teach lifetime values, more that once repeating the famous line from the Wizard of Westwood: “Make each day your masterpiece.”
Reflecting on his upbringing, Yanai heaped praise on his parents, immigrants who gave birth to him while incarcerated at Manzanar, and who made certain he knew how fortunate he was to have been born in the United States. He attended Gardena High School and went on to earn a degree from Cal State Long Beach.
A star baseball player in his youth, Yanai remembered the teachings of another mentor, Mas Fukai — a longtime member of the Gardena City Council — from whom he learned respect and tenacity, recalling late nights of incessant ground balls rifled to him at second base.
“I can’t tell you all the bruises I had on my chest. He taught me toughness, and to stand up for what I believed in. So many summers ago, on that dirt baseball field. How did you come to be who you are? I’m the sum total of those wonderful people in my life who helped me.”
Though now retired, the 77-year-old Yanai continues to be involved with youth basketball, lending his coaching insights to camps, and following upcoming players including his grand-nieces. His approach remains one of a collective effort, a community sharing that helps lift the young people to a standard that benefits all of society.
“All these moments of teaching are what help all of us, and the effort is something we have to do this together,” he said. “I often quote an African proverb that says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’”