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Architect of back-to-back state titles at Eastside Prep a ‘life coach’

Jose Carlos Fajardo / Bay Area News Group Eastside College Prep head coach Donovan Blythe watches his player on the court against Rolling Hills Prep in the second period of the CIF state Division V girls basketball championship game at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif. on Friday, March 24, 2017.

Donovan Blythe has crossed paths with Jason Kidd, Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant during his journey as a basketball coach.

“There’s a lot of things that people don’t know about me,” Blythe said. “I’m involved with basketball all over the world. So I get a chance to see the different styles of basketball, the different hunger in kids and so forth. I am a student of the game. I try to teach the game the right way.”

For proof, look no further than last week’s CIF state basketball championships at Golden 1 Center, home to the Sacramento Kings.

In his 10th season as girls basketball coach at Eastside College Prep, a small private school in East Palo Alto, Blythe watched as the Panthers claimed back-to-back Division V state titles with a commanding 63-40 victory.

Over the past decade, the 57-year-old has led the girls to the NorCal finals six times, winning it the past three tries. Hashima Carothers, a senior at the University of San Francisco, and Destiny Graham, a sophomore at Arizona, are among five players he’s sent to play at the NCAA Division I level.

Yet, Blythe wants to make one thing clear.

“First of all, it’s about the academics there at Eastside,” Blythe said. “It’s not that easy for us to get kids in there. Because if your parent graduated from college, you can’t get into Eastside. And if your income is at a certain level, you’re not able to get in. So I’m just working with what’s available. It’s not a basketball factory. I don’t look at myself as a basketball coach. I am a life coach, that’s what I do. My relationships with my players are permanent. All my girls come back and visit.”

Indeed, he had dinner with Carothers upon his return from Sacramento this past Friday.

Gumbo

Not too long ago, he traveled to San Leandro to spend time with Darnell Robinson, another former pupil.

“My wife had some gumbo,” said Robinson, 42, who as a 6-foot-11 freshman center at Arkansas was part of the 1994 NCAA men’s championship team. “So he came out and got a little bit of the gumbo.”

“It was awesome, too,” Blythe said.

The relationship with Robinson dates back to the early ’90s, when they teamed up to win a Division V boys state title at Emery High in Emeryville in 1993.

“There’s nothing like ending a season with a win,” said Robinson, who recruited Blythe to join the staff and change the culture at Emery High after spending time with him in the AAU circuit. “That’s truly why I think any athlete plays the game. We all want to be champions, and I think that’s why we all put the work in. You want to be the last man standing. I know that’s what drove me, and Coach D was a born champion because he brought that pedigree to our team. We needed that to push over the hump.

“We had a team good enough to win four state championships from the time I was a freshman, but we didn’t know how to win it. And he gave us that. We owe that to him.”

Coming to America

Hard to believe Blythe is the same boy from Jamaica who as a 12-year-old moved a few miles north of Chicago with no idea his love affair with a sport he couldn’t fathom was about to begin.

“I’d never seen basketball before,” Blythe said. “We didn’t have basketball in Jamaica. Pretty much I played cricket, I ran track and played soccer. So when I came to the United States and saw this rim, I didn’t even know what it was.”

Guys on the playground would laugh at Blythe because he couldn’t shoot. “All I had was a hook shot,” he said.

The solution? He bought a book by Jerry West and learned the skills with relentless work every day. Blythe, at 6 feet, 2 inches tall, went on to play at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside on a basketball scholarship before returning home.

That’s when he transitioned to coaching, working with kids in Evanston, Illinois. His first client was Everette Stevens, who later played at Purdue and became the 31st overall pick of the 1988 NBA Draft.

New home

He came to the Bay Area in 1987 and currently resides in San Mateo. Blythe’s spring basketball league, which was sponsored by Nike and he ran out of USF, attracted talent such as Kidd and Brady, not to mention Mahershala Ali, Oscar winner for “Moonlight” as male supporting actor.

“He was on my traveling team with Jason Kidd,” Blythe said of Ali, who got a scholarship to play men’s basketball at St. Mary’s in Moraga. “That’s one of my guys.”

For about seven years, Blythe also served as a sports agent, negotiating his first contract with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Parcells on behalf of Devin Wyman, a linebacker out of East Palo Alto who graduated from Carlmont High in Belmont.

“I was certified in the NBA, too, as an agent, because the parents trusted me to negotiate the deal for the kids,” Blythe said. “But it’s not something that I really wanted to do, I didn’t have a passion for it. I was just, again, trying to help the kids and the families out.”

Father-daughter

Today, he also runs his own business, Blythe’s Basketball, with his daughter Britney on staff, as well as Eastside Prep assistant coach Kevin Seiter.

Britney Blythe, who graduated from St. Ignatius in San Francisco in 2007, is a 5-foot-9 point guard who had recruiting letters from UConn and ended up at Colorado, where she “emerged as the team’s defensive stopper in 2010-11” as a senior, according to her bio on the school’s website.

“He was a defensive specialist,” Robinson said. “He was definitely all defense, and pretty much the offense took care of itself.”

Needless to say, her dad helped Britney play at the next level, though he didn’t sugarcoat what it would take.

“It’s going to be some bumps on the road here and there, but one thing is she believed in me, she believed in the blueprint,” Blythe said. “I told her, ‘Hey, if you want to play beyond high school, I can help you. You just have to trust me. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be hard. You’re going to have to balance school and balance workouts.’ ”

After she went off to college, he took over at Eastside. In his first season — 2007-08 — the Panthers went 31-2 and reached the NorCal finals for the first time in school history.

“How he’s able to get everything out of his players, to me he’s the greatest at motivating his players and getting the best out of each individual player on the team,” Robinson said. “And I know that’s the reason why they’re winning championships, because he does the best with whatever they have.”

Globe trotter

His reputation has spread across the globe when Blythe signed a five-year deal in 2014 to run the basketball camps in China for Yi Jianlian, No. 6 overall pick by Milwaukee Bucks in the 2007 NBA Draft.

“He was supposed to be the next Yao Ming,” Blythe said.

Last summer, he not only worked with Cal sophomore Ivan Rabb, who recently announced he’s turning pro, but Bryant recruited Blythe to design a clinic for his Nike RISE Camp in China.

Eastside Prep girls basketball coach Donovan Blythe, second from left, stands next to retired NBA star Kobe Bryant at a Nike RISE Camp in China. (Courtesy photo)

“My model is hard work,” Blythe said. “That’s what we talk about, it’s hard work. Because if you’re willing to work, great things will happen for you, and not just in basketball. And that’s what I’m trying to teach these young ladies at Eastside, that if they can come and work on the basketball court, they should be able to work hard in the classroom. One day, when they have a job, they should be able to work hard at that job and be able to grow.”

“He’s so much bigger than a coach for us,” Robinson said. “I call him a motivator because he’s like a life coach. Sometimes he’s yelling at me things you might not want to hear, but definitely the life lessons played a part in me growing up to be a man and be able to take care of my family. He touched a lot of lives, it’s not always the ball. That’s why our relationship was able to withstand time.”

Or maybe it’s the gumbo.

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