Coach of a different ‘Flava’

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Coach of a different ‘Flava’

BP Photo by Ariela Feitelberg

BP Photo by Ariela Feitelberg

BP Photo by Ariela Feitelberg

Leila Miller, Editor-in-Chief

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When Coach Ronnie Winbush was younger, he always did things a bit differently – with a different “flavor,” one could say. If his friends were walking on the sidewalk, he would walk in the street, and they would shrug and say, “That’s just the way he goes.” His quirky style caused his friends, relatives and teachers to start calling him, well, “Flava” – and from age 10 onward, the name stuck.

Coach Flava, now 41 and the Athletic Director at Shalhevet, can often be seen – quite easily, at 6’10 “ – high-fiving students in the hallway, coaching girls after school, and joking around with students and faculty in his genuinely happy, always smiling, basketball-dunking manner.

“He makes a connection with every player,” said senior Yossi Halpert, a power forward on the boys’ basketball team. “We all play for him. He’s a great guy and a really good basketball player and knows what he’s talking about.”

Students who had Flava as their PE teacher in Shalhevet’s middle school agreed. Senior Justin Brandt-Sarif said the coach’s fun and laid-back style makes him popular with students.  He recalled a day when his PE class stayed indoors because it was raining, and Flava made his classmates practice giving public speeches in front of the group.

“He’s very motivating,” said senior Justin Brandt-Sarif, whom Flava taught for three years. “I would say the only reason why PE was a success in middle school was because of him. He makes sure everyone is where they need to be and he caters to kids individually.”

 

Flava grew up in South Central Los Angeles, was an only child and attended Crenshaw High School. “Always a sports guy,” he said, he trained hard at basketball – his natural sport because of his height – and described himself as a “determined and focused” teenager.

“To be in school, I had to play basketball,” Flava said, explaining how it is the opposite for most people. “In the long run, sports helped me get through school. It messed up my priorities because I put sports before all my other things. But it kept me focused. It kept me out of the gangs.”

During high school, Flava was the power forward for two years on Crenshaw’s junior varsity basketball team and played basketball wherever he could, picking up advice on the street, at parks and gyms.

“Play the game hard, all the time,” he said, was a lesson that a “neighborhood thug” called Cedric had taught him. “I learned that at a young age.”

Flava’s efforts paid off. He earned a full scholarship to play basketball at Cal State Long Beach after being noticed playing in gyms the summer before senior year. During his two years at Cal State, his team won 62 games and lost 5, never losing a home game. He then transferred to Azusa Pacific University, where he was named the player of the year in the Golden State Athletic Conference after leading his team in rebounds and steals and being second in assists.

When a scout saw him playing in the gym at Isis Park in Hawthorne and asked if he would be interested in playing overseas, Flava didn’t hesitate.

“I jumped at the opportunity, which took me on wonderful adventures,” Flava said. From there he went on to play in Mexico. “It’s what I call a paid vacation.”

A greater surprised awaited him when he returned home about eight months later, age 26, and a friend at a club told him to show up to play basketball at the L.A. Sports Club. After waiting through four games, Flava played against basketball legend Magic Johnson – his childhood idol.

Flava’s team lost both games, but he scored eight shots in the first one and six in the second.  Afterward, when Flava and Magic were both were waiting outside to be picked up, Magic invited him to try out for the Magic Johnson All-Stars, his personal team.

“Seeing your idol has a big-type effect on you,” Flava said. “I didn’t really know what to say or do.”

Flava became the shooting guard for Magic’s team, and traveled with it for eight months in Mexico and Japan.

“He saw he liked what I brought to the court,” Flava said, recalling how he had trained at the Inglewood Forum – an arena that was the home of the L.A. Lakers at the time – learning from one of the best.

From there, Flava played with teams in Europe and Asia, including Germany, France, Switzerland and Hong Kong, and was usually abroad six to eight months at a time. He loved “being in the inner city and then seeing the world.”

The hardest part was “playing away from home, adjusting to a new atmosphere, not knowing the language.”

“You got to learn new faces,” he added. “[And] the worst part is being in a foreign train station and not being able to read the signs.”

But he treated the professional games as he always had.

“The bodies are bigger, the court is bigger,” he said. “But it’s the same. I approached it as a job, something to get done. I have a certain mind frame every time I touch the court.”

The lowest point of his career was when he missed a last-second shot that cost his team the game.

“I still see that shot to this day,” Flava admitted. “Since then I’ve made sure I finish the game.”

He kept to his word. In his proudest moment, Flava scored 49 points, including 13 threes, in a game in France.

But his favorite part, he said without hesitation, was coming home, where he would play on an X-box in his house or go to the mall to eat ice cream. Still, he said he has no regrets – sacrifices must be made for a dream.

When he returned home permanently, Flava taught at El Rodeo Elementary in Beverly Hills and started to coach basketball camps. He trained the son of Ed Eiseman, then Shalhevet Middle School’s General Studies principal, and in 2006 became the head basketball coach of Shalhevet’s high school varsity team.

 

During the first game Flava coached at Shalhevet, the Firehawks lost to YULA by 60 points.

“It hurt my heart,” he said. “It took me weeks to get over that. That was the first time and I had my team quit on me. It took me a while to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

He said he achieved this by teaching students never to give up during a game regardless of how the team is doing, and that a strong defense is what wins.

“When I first got here, we were the three S’s: slow, soft and small,” Flava said. “It was a running inside joke. Now, five years later, we’re just small.”

Indeed, two years ago, the boys’ basketball won the top spot in the Mulholland League Championship, competing against other local schools. But what Flava enjoys most about being a coach is “watching the light come on.”

“Everyone needs to do their job,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want any players to have “hero syndrome.” “As long as they’re doing their job, they’re doing it well.”

And his student fans are loyal. When Flava left school briefly last year after a new boys’ basketball coach was brought in, 265 people liked a Facebook page titled “Keep Flava in Shalhevet.”  In the meantime, he kept coaching basketball for the girls’ team.

Sophomore Robin Ashkenazi, whom he playfully nicknamed “Whoops,” and Junior Ariela Feitelberg, nicknamed “Speedy,” could often be seen on the Sport Court still playing him one-on-one at dinnertime last spring, long after the basketball season was over.

“He’s always there, always encouraging me,” Robin said. “It’s really fun to work with him. He pushes you in the right direction.”

Flava is also known for catchphrases he uses on court, such as shouting, “Go get your money,” when someone is trying to get the ball.

“He always says he learned from the best so he’s teaching us the best,” Ariela said. “He brings up Magic Johnson a lot… [he says] ‘I learned this from Magic and I learned this from Magic.’”

This year, Flava will be coaching girls varsity and possibly boys junior varsity basketball, along with girls softball. He assured a freshman trying out for varsity that he’d always be able to play the game.

“It’s like riding a bike,” Flava said. “I can go and do the jump shot until the day I die, I hope.”

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