MVP Washington set to lead champ Evessa’s bid for repeat

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Want the primer for winning the hearts of fans and a prominent spot in a sport’s history books at the same time?

News photoOsaka Evessa power forward Lynn Washington, shown attempting a dunk in the bj-league championship game on April 30 against Niigata Albirex, is the league’s reigning MVP.
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

It’s simple.

Do what Lynn Washington did in 2005-06 during the bj-league’s inaugural season.

He led the Osaka Evessa to a 31-9 regular-season record and a championship and was named the league MVP. (And he backed up his top-player credentials by posting big numbers in the title clash against the Niigata Albirex –24 points and 15 rebounds — a game the Evessa won 84-74 before a crowd of 7,641 spectators on April 30.)

But Washington will be the first to tell you that Evessa’s blueprint for success was not a one-man operation.

He credits the performance of fellow foreign players — point guard Matt Lottich, forward Jeff Newton and sixth man David Palmer — as being equally vital to Osaka’s operation.

“With Matt Lottich going to Stanford, me and Jeff going to Indiana and David Palmer going to Southern Utah, we come from really experienced basketball backgrounds,” Washington said by phone as he prepared for the season opener against the Tokyo Apache on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Ariake Colosseum.

“The chemistry part with the Americans is easy to come into.”

Washington, 29, has been around basketball long enough to know that confidence can play a vital role in a team’s success as well.

“We knew we were supposed to win it,” was how he described the Evessa’s championship-or-bust mentality last year under head coach Kensaku Tennichi.

Washington, a power forward, averaged 20.4 points, 11 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game and shot 54.6 percent from the field.

His powerful dunks and on-court enthusiasm were equally vital to the team’s success.

The emergence of small forward Kazuya Hatano, who contributed 8.1 ppg and 5.4 rpg, as a steady performer, also helped set the tone for the team’s Japanese players to make their mark a year ago.

“We definitely connected with them,” Washington said of the American players’ bond with their Japanese teammates. “But we can definitely connect with them a little bit more now and for the rest of the season.”

Language exchange and a common love of basketball, of course, help players become friends quickly.

“In basketball, it’s kind of easy to know the Japanese phrases for basketball,” Washington said.

What else will strengthen the team’s bond?

“A little bit of time and maybe a couple of losses — that never hurt anybody,” he added with a good-natured chuckle.

Washington returned to Sacramento, Calif., for the summer months and worked out diligently.

“I shot a little bit, but my main focus was to get stronger,” he said.

“Some people say I am undersized (as a power forward),” the 200-cm, 100-kg performer added.

This, naturally, was all the motivation he needed to work even harder during the offseason.

“I came back in better shape, better conditioning,” said Washington, who played for the Honka Playboys of the Finnish League before coming to Japan. “I’m expecting this season to be harder.”

Nine years his senior, David Benoit’s longevity in the game impresses Washington.

“David Benoit is an exception, like a freak of nature you can say,” Washington said of the ex-NBA player during the wide-ranging interview.

“Last year before he got hurt, he was dunking. He’s very exceptional for that age, so more power to him.”

Yet Washington doesn’t envision himself sticking around the gym for as many years as the Saitama Broncos forward.

“I haven’t planned on doing it much longer,” he admitted. “I am coming to a point in my life where I want to be able to do something else.”

He said business opportunities interest him but he isn’t close to finalizing any plans just yet.

For now, there’s still plenty for him to accomplish on the hardwood.

And six months and four days after winning the bj-league’s first championship trophy, that incredible euphoria remains.

“Definitely, it’s special now more so than before,” Washington said, reflecting on the trophy’s greater significance as time passes.

Of course, it’s no secret that the Evessa has only one goal for 2006-07: to repeat as champions.

“We know it’s going to be harder, but we prepared ourselves over the summer,” Washington. “We prepared to win, mentally and physically and as a team.

“If we don’t win, it’ll be a loss.”

Washington attended high school and junior college in San Jose, Calif., before moving on to the Midwest to play for legendary Bobby Knight and Indiana University.

But nowadays, Washington’s wife and three children, a 9-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 3 and 1, reside in Sacramento.

Washington’s job on the basketball court far, far away in Japan carries a great sense of pride for his family, especially for his daughter who considers his MVP trophy a special symbol of his status as an excellent basketball player and No. 1 daddy.

“She definitely understands,” Washington said, “but she kind of expects it out of me.”