By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
If you followed West High School Warriors’ basketball from 2000-03, or played in or been associated with FOR over the past 20 years, or took in any of the past three NAU championship games, or attended a Kobe Bryant summer basketball camp, or, perhaps were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Nike commercial while in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games, you’ve undoubtedly heard of or seen in action Paul Nitake.
As one can readily ascertain, the man enjoys his hoops.
Which, of course, makes his newest job an ideal fit.
While it’s still a ways away, this coming winter, Nitake will find himself in familiar territory, only, this time, he’ll have a vastly different role. Instead of suiting up for the WHS Warriors where he was a three-year letter winner as the starting point guard, Nitake will be pacing the sidelines as the varsity head coach.
“He’s worked here for the last three years as an assistant and he’s an alumni here, and he has a lot of ties to the community,” WHS Athletic Director Bill Atkinson told the Rafu Shimpo. “Both the assistant principal and I coached him when he was playing here so we have a lot of knowledge of him. We thought it would be a good time to give him the opportunity to step up and be the head coach. Paul’s a terrific young man.”
Nitake, who turned 25 in January, will be assuming the reigns at West, a brief seven years after graduating from there. He’ll be coaching in the same gym where he, his brother Mark and his sister Lindsey once played, and where his youngest sister, Nicole, still suits up for the girl’s varsity team.
“I applied and I was a little worried I was too young, but, the way things worked out, I was really blessed with this opportunity,” Nitake said. “I am very thankful and very excited.”
The road ahead, however, will be more “suicide lines” than “HORSE.” Nitake inherits a team from Danny Walker that went 7-19 last season, will have only five players returning, most who saw limited playing time, and will most likely be featuring players from West’s J.V. and Freshmen teams that won two games combined in 2009.
Nitake seems unfazed by this reality. After all, he does have experience in building a program from the ground up. Two years ago, while attending UC Irvine, Nitake got involved in establishing the junior high basketball program at Irvine Baptist Church.
“He introduced the program, got the whole structure set up, rules, practice, everything,” said Sam Yoon who is the youth pastor at Irvine Baptist. “He’s the nicest guy I’ve known. Good-hearted person. Loves people. Loves to take care of people. I saw that with the kids. He’d coach basketball, but he really wanted to get to know them. He cared for and really connected with them and their parents.”
Nitake mixes his amiable and pensive personality with a championship-caliber pedigree that simply oozes basketball experience.
In addition to his six years as a player and assistant coach at West, he’s put in over 20 years of NAU, FOR and AU basketball, works every
July at the Kobe Bryant basketball camp and has garnered a wealth of knowledge from three head coaches he considers good friends: Torrance’s George Tachibana, North’s Gary Duperon, and Fairfax’s Harvey Kitani.
“This coming year, I really want to turn things around,” Nitake said. “I think most would predict us to have a tough year, but I think with the change of philosophy and just the change in tempo and dynamics of our team, I think we could tweak things to our advantage.”
Nitake plans to let the personnel dictate the style of play, though he is quick to note that he wants a focused, defensive-minded team that knows how to lockdown on defense. The plan is to force turnovers and get transition buckets that will help pick up the offensive tempo.
“I’m looking for hardnosed players who are willing to put in the work ethic and determination, enforce their will on their opponents, in terms of just outworking them,” Nitake said. “At the same time, just being team players, being willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. Doing whatever it takes that’s necessary.”
The son of a Yonsei father and a Chinese mother, Nitake knows a thing or two about working hard and sacrifice. His father loved basketball and made sure all of his kids got started early. At the age of five, all four Nitake kids were thrust into basketball and each and every one came to the same conclusion—they were all hooked on hoops.
This common bond as well as his own Christian faith, have helped forge a sense of family, something he is looking to utilize as head coach.
“The way I look at it is, I always tell my players the same thing. The players are only as good as the coach. The coach is only as good as the players,” Nitake said. “We need each other and we’re one team. We’re a family. All our problems, we’ll fix in house. Everything we do. There’s no one person above the others. We all need each other and we’re in this together until the end. The kids, I think, really like that.”
This mindset will include the players choosing their own team captains and will hold everyone accountable for his own effort and actions, from the players to the assistant coaches to Nitake himself.
“We’re all equal,” he said. “We’re all one family.”
Positivity. When you first meet Nitake, that’s the overwhelming impression you get from him. He’s got an inviting smile, an easy demeanor. But, when you see him out on the court, he transforms into a fundamentally sound, unrelenting assassin. Ironically, this Jekyl and Hyde personality mirrors Nitake’s two favorite players.
Growing up in Los Angeles, they both are of course Lakers.
Off the court, Nitake carries himself with class, respect and humility, much like Derek Fisher. In fact, Fisher has this quote that can be found on Nitake’s Facebook page: “My loyalty is always with my family and faith first.”
On the court, however, Nitake has more in common with Mamba. Not in terms of the way they play (Nitake never forces anything) but more in the mentality they bring to the hardwood each time they lace em up.
Working with Kobe Bryant for the past several summers, Nitake has come to truly respect, if not the man, than most certainly the athlete. And his own personal drive on the court reflects what he’s learned from arguably the best player on the planet.
“In terms of just being an athlete and a competitor, and seeing how much motivation and drive and effort he puts into his craft and practice,” Nitake said. “Just the way he mentally prepares for the game, I find that very intriguing and very exciting because he’s at the top, he’s at the prime of his game and yet he’s still hungry, he’s still determined to get better and stay on top. He doesn’t get complacent.”
While the West High School Warriors will be coming from the opposite side of the spectrum this winter, the lesson nevertheless still applies.
“Since I’m new and young, I think a lot of people are just doubting us because we had a down season, and this is my first year,” Nitake said. “Most people in the area are probably not afraid of us. They don’t see us as a threat. That’s really going to fuel our motivation. We can only move forward. I’m really excited and eager to turn things around and I think the guys in our program are really buying into what this coaching staff is trying to do.”