No. 1 Narbonne
By Marcos Bretn
Bee Staff Writer
(Published March 17, 2001)
Imagine a big, co-ed high school campus -- one with a rich tradition of
sports -- where the girls are king of the hill. Or in this case, queen
of the hill.
Where female athletes inspire awe in the hallways, outshining the
hulking football players or any of the "studs" on the boys basketball team.
Where a girls team fills the house for home games, setting a standard
for the boys to shoot for.
This isn't a pipe dream. Or a hope for the future.
This team is the answer to a trivia question: Which is the only high
school basketball program in any division -- boys or girls -- to have
won six Northern California championships?
The girls of Berkeley High School, whose latest team plays at Arco Arena
tonight in a quest for the school's third Division I state championship
in the last decade.
The Narbonne High School Gauchos from Harbor City near Los Angeles, the
No. 1 team in the nation, according to USA TODAY.
The Yellowjackets of Berkeley know Narbonne very well. They lost to them
in last year's state title game 64-52. And they lost to them in the 1998
state championship game 67-46.
In fact, Narbonne is about the only mountain the Berkeley girls have
failed to climb -- and few expect them to tonight.
Few outside the Berkeley High campus that is -- an old, racially diverse
public school of roughly 3,000 students, making the Yellowjackets an
anomaly at this weekend's state championships.
They are one of only six public schools among 20 vying for 10 state
championships in five divisions at Arco Arena this weekend. Yet Berkeley
has become virtually unbeatable in Northern California, and the envy of
rival coaches and players throughout the region.
"I'm not affected by any of that," said Gene Nakamura, Berkeley High's
coach who is always the first to downplay his program's success.
It's not just an act. When Berkeley High won its record sixth Northern
California title last weekend at Arco Arena, his players didn't
celebrate wildly -- even though they beat Oakland High School 55-40.
Why wasn't anyone happy?
Nakamura thought they should have won by 25 points.
"I wanted to make a statement," said Nakamura, a blunt, direct
56-year-old who sports a salt-and-pepper crew cut and practices tough
love in every practice, every game.
There might be those who question such methods, who would wonder whether
***agers shouldn't just revel in victory and not nitpick over details.
But consider this: Any chauvinistic perceptions about girls sports and
female athletes would have a tough time standing up at a Berkeley game
Aside from Berkeley's records, there is a more meaningful way of gauging
whether Nakamura's methods work -- how his ex-players still seek him out.
This week, an all-star team of Berkeley grads returned to campus,
pummeling the current squad in practice games meant to toughen them for
"Because (Nakamura) saw the best in me before I did and helped me be my
best," said Aisha Hollans, a high school All-American last year for
Berkeley and now a scholarship freshman at USC.
Nakamura did that by getting in Hollans' face, by pushing her
constantly, reminding her how good she was and making sure she never forgot.
Hollans supports the current players. After a scrimmage Wednesday, for
example, Hollans and other graduates critiqued the play of this year's team.
Critiqued them hard ... just as Nakamura would.
"You guys are easy to guard," said Tanda Rucker, a 1991 graduate who
played on Berkeley's first state champion that year and went on to
Stanford -- where she played on a national champion.
Listening intently to Rucker was 17-year-old Robin Roberson, a star
senior at Berkeley who is headed for the University of Arizona next year.
"I think we're ready for Narbonne," Roberson said. "We're not intimidated."
That kind of confidence comes from playing in at least two national
basketball tournaments each year, where Berkeley is constantly facing
the best there is.
Nakamura is able to expose his team to such competition by hosting a
massive basketball camp each summer, where hundreds of girls descend on
the Berkeley campus.
It brings in about $20,000 a year, and -- along with other fund-raisers
-- Nakamura is able to run his program without looking for outside
And with a strong local base of players from Berkeley -- players he
begins scouting in his job as a middle school administrator -- Nakamura
makes it work.
He also gets four or five girls each year who transfer in from as far
away as Fairfield, through open enrollment.
Whether Berkeley wins against Narbonne in tonight's game at 6 or not,
the Yellowjackets will be back -- they only lose three seniors off this
And so at a school that used to dominate boys basketball in the 1960s --
where among other retired jerseys is the number of former NBA star Phil
Chenier -- a new dy*** grows.
"This is a tradition," Rucker said.
"And we want to keep it going."