A girls’ basketball coach who kept the ‘I’ out of team

As a coach, Oscar Jimenez was methodical, exacting and detailed to a point — whether that was a spot on the court or a grade in a class.

So it was hardly surprising to those who knew him that when he scripted his final play this week, it went exactly as planned.

Monday, he married his longtime love, Patty Harmon.

And Tuesday, he died.

That these two events were preceded by months of uncertainty, anxiety and copious amounts of pain and suffering goes without saying. That Jimenez would figure out a way to weave a path to his planned destination, was just as expected.

Jimenez, 57, was the Bill Walsh of amateur girls’ basketball in the Bay Area — a person who created a system, managed an organization, and formed a coaching fraternity that had no equal in its time. As the head of the basketball program at San Francisco’s Mission Recreation Center — home of the Rebels — he built a dynasty on the West Coast, one recognized throughout the country, and personally coached thousands of girls, many of whom went on to dynamic high school and college careers.

So if you hadn’t heard of him, it’s because in the 30 years I knew him, I listened to Oscar discuss many things — schools, basketball, cars, chess — but I can’t remember one time when he talked about himself.

There really is no “I” in team.

Oscar coached hundreds of them, some good, some great and some that will likely be equaled. One of them, his 1992 (birth year) team, finished second in the AAU national championships held each summer that attract every major college program in the country.

The championship banners fill the walls at Mission Rec Center, where Oscar started the program when it opened 25 years ago. Recreation and Park Department officials wanted a Spanish-speaking instructor to head the center, probably thinking they would start an indoor soccer league. Wrong ball.

“As long as I knew him, he was always a coach,” said Kristen DeAndreis, one of his closest friends who coached basketball with him when she taught at Everett Middle School. “He could break down everything to the most basic elements. There was never any panic about his teams because they were so well-prepared.”

How driven was Oscar to overcome any obstacle? When he arrived here at the age of 12 with his mother — refugees from then war-torn Nicaragua — he didn’t speak a word of English. It never occurred to me until this week that Oscar didn’t have an accent.

His was a program of great expectations. He drove his girls to reach high, and then reach higher. At Mission Rec, he created an atmosphere that was so competitive that the players who did not prove to be future college stars were still good enough to excel in high school. The most intense basketball I ever saw was when his seventh-grade girls played his eighth-grade girls. By the time the best teams from Southern California showed up for their annual whipping, it’s because his girls had already played against the best — themselves.

My daughter Laura was for several years part of the vaunted 1992 team that formed the nucleus of the Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory teams that won three straight state championships. Nearly every girl on those teams received Division I scholarships, and are currently filling the rosters at Pepperdine, UC Berkeley, New Mexico State, Nevada, Hawaii and Harvard.

Did I fail to mention that the program at Mission Rec was free? I still don’t know how Oscar managed to cover the costs of the dozens of tournaments they traveled to each year, but I’m pretty certain a fair amount came out of his own pocket.

But the biggest contribution he gave was himself. He worked as Mission Rec’s director in the day, and then the nights turned into extensive teaching clinics. Oscar was as much an academic counselor as coach — he advised the girls on everything from math to matching them with the best fit for high school and college.

“He held high ideals for the kids,” said Brian Harrigan, who won four state championships at Sacred Heart Cathedral with the girls that came to his program from Mission Rec during his 18-year run there. “He probably kept up on their grades more than their parents. He wanted to make sure that any girl who came into his program never failed.

“He was demanding, but he knew that if you were willing to do the work that the winning would take care of itself.”

The loyalty, too. At least 200 tributes have already popped up on his Facebook page from former players and their parents.

If only he had time to prepare for cancer. He would have triple-teamed it. He would have set up a full-court press and given it 40 minutes of hell. He would have frozen it at the foul line.

Young women are flying in from all over the country to be at his wake Monday (Duggan’s Serra Mortuary on Westlake Avenue in Daly City, beginning at 4 p.m.) and at his funeral mass Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. at Corpus Christi Church in San Francisco. They are part of a group that likely will never be equaled in San Francisco.

Girl power is a mighty thing to behold. Funny that so much of it would center around one man.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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