Kato makes rare coaching jump from high school to pros

Ex-Noshiro Tech mentor set to lead Link Tochigi Brex after illustrious career at Japan prep powerhouse

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Initially, he picked up a microphone to speak to some 50 assembled reporters. But he quickly put it on the table and resumed his speech in his loud, distinct voice.

Mitsuhiko Kato is a hearty person. And he makes everybody around him believe him with his upright way of talking.

“You can hear me, can’t you?” said Kato, the newly introduced head coach of the Link Tochigi Brex of the Japan Basketball League at a Tokyo news conference on Tuesday.

A former Noshiro Technical High School head coach, Kato’s ascension to the top league (now branded as a pro circuit) run by the Japan Basketball Association provided basketball fans and media with nothing but astonishment.

The 45-year-old Kato, who resigned as coach of the Akita Prefecture school at the end of last month, is one of the most established coaches on the international amateur basketball scene.

What’s more, he led a perennially dominant Noshiro Tech program — arguably Japan’s most renowned amateur basketball powerhouse — to a total of 25 national championship titles as head coach, including interscholastic competitions, national athletic meets and national invitational tournaments, since taking the job in 1990.

“With different kinds of mixed emotions, I wanted to do my best here (at the Brex) for my further growth,” said Kato, who agreed to a three-year contract with the club.

Kato’s Noshiro successor will be Nobunaga Sato, a graduate of the school who hung up his shoes last month as a JBL player.

The transition of a highly recognized coach with prolific achievements to the professional ranks might remind hoop fans of similar cases in the United States — namely Rick Pitino and John Calipari, both of whom have coached in the NCAA and for NBA teams, and numerous others over the years.

The circumstances, however, are much different in Japanese sports. And coaching transitions between amateur and pro — consider it a quantum leap — almost never happened here before.

That is why the news about Kato deserved fans’ attention here more so than in the United States under similar circumstances.

In a sense, what helped make it possible was the establishment of the Brex, who joined the JBL’s second division last season and won the JBL2 title last month.

The Brex have already been promoted to the top division for the 2008-09 season, taking the place of OSG Phoenix, who defected to the rival bj-league.

“If this was at Aisin (Sea Horses) or Toyota (Motors Alvark), it wouldn’t have been possible,” Kato said candidly.

Kato’s Noshiro Tech squad was unable to capture the National Tournament (the Winter Cup) title last December and placed third. While he was feeling responsible for his team’s performance, Kato got to watch the Brex play in the All-Japan Championships and was impressed by what he saw from the garden-fresh team.

That was certainly the turning point, he recalled.

“I thought, ‘Wow, here is a fascinating team,’ ” Kato said. “They were really throwing themselves into the game.”

The Brex set a goal in their inaugural season to win the JBL title within five years. The addition of Kato certainly makes it more realistic. “I felt sympathetic with this man that has had success in high school still tries to go beyond,” team president Takashi Yamaya said. “While we aim to be the best in Japan, his arrival is really encouraging for us because he’s become the best in high school.”

Yet Kato doesn’t like to be tied to “fixed ideas” and what he has achieved in Akita has nothing to do with what he will do for Tochigi.

This will be a whole new challenge for him and he is going to put his past achievements behind him.

Meanwhile, fans’ attention and interest will turn to how he builds his new team.

But Kato said that it’ll come down to how much he can “study” about his players and the league, because in terms of the levels of ability and maturation as people, the high school and JBL players are different and thus he has to take a different approach in how he coaches them.

“While the high school players are in the middle of the process of growing, the JBL players are mature and I have to apply schemes that fit for them,” said Kato, adding that he has to wait and see what kind of players the front office will give him to determine more detailed strategies.

A lot of fans expect that Kato and his new team will try to acquire some of his former Noshiro Tech players, including Yuta Tabuse, the first Japanese player in the NBA, with whom Kato won major national titles for three straight years.

“I’ve not talked with him directly (about his move),” Kato said. “But he is on my list among the players I want to have.”

Sutton resigns

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) Only two years into his tenure, Sean Sutton resigned under pressure Tuesday as Oklahoma State’s basketball coach following a 17-16 season.

Athletic director Mike Holder met with Sutton on Monday, two weeks after the Cowboys finished their season. Holder said Sutton knew the expectations for a program that reached the Final Four twice with Sutton on his father Eddie’s staff.