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Sugawara steps up game for Golden Kings

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The Japan Times will be featuring periodic interviews with players in the bj-league. The league’s fifth season bean in October. Yosuke Sugawara of the Ryukyu Golden Kings is the subject of this week’s profile.

Position: Guard; Age: 26

Ht: 186 cm; Wt: 82 kg

Hometown: Hokkaido

College: Waseda University

Noteworthy: Sugawara is averaging 8.7 points per game through Jan. 10 for Dai Oketani’s club, which leads in the Western Conference standings. . . .

After starting shooting guard Shigeyuki Kinjo sustained a knee injury in early December, Sugawara has filled his place in the starting lineup. . . .

A former Rera Kamuy Hokkaido player, Sugawara averaged 5.1 points and shot 80.3 percent at the free-throw line in 45 games in 2008-09, contributing to the Kings’ first-ever bj-league title.

When head coach Dai Oketani designated a starter to replace Kinjo, were you surprised by the move?

As Shige got hurt and I became a starter, it wasn’t that much of a surprise.

But position-wise, when we had Shige I was more of a backup point guard since the beginning of the season. But now Shige went down and I had to take care of the second guard spot, so I’ve gradually shifted my role to that latter one.

You quickly came through as you scored 21 in the very first game after Kinjo’s injury on Dec. 5 and had six steals in the following game. How do you recall those performances?

I wouldn’t want to see the team start losing by not having Shige. I didn’t want the team to lose as long as I was a starter, rather I wanted to put the team on a roll. So I was just trying as hard as I could so the team could win.

You played in 45 games, mostly as a sixth man for the league champion Golden Kings last season. How did that experience help make you a better all-around player?

Before (last season), I hadn’t really had a chance to be used as a sixth man. I had always been a starter. So I didn’t really have a clue what I was supposed to do and what the coach expected of me, and I didn’t actually do good in the beginning. But I got to understand the role as I held conversations (with coaches).

Meanwhile, I couldn’t play the two-guard (position) at all, and tried to look for how I should play it. It finally paid off after a while, though. I feel like I’ve become an all-around (player) because of that experience of last season, and our coaches such as head coach Oketani and general manager (Tatsuro) Kimura made me an all-arounder as well.

What lessons did you learn during Oketani’s first season as the team’s coach?

The biggest thing I learned from him was, before, I felt like playing basketball was like my duty, I was doing whatever I was told to do. But what coach Oketani said was, you have to play the game thinking what you are supposed to do, and be a player that can lead the team. Since then, my game has improved dramatically.

You were raised in Hokkaido and now play way on the opposite side of the nation. Do you feel strange about that?

Yes, there is some strangeness for me. I had never been here before, even on a trip. Yet I had been to the States (to play for the San Jose Skyrockets of the ABA) and was told it’s similar to California. And when I actually came down here, I thought it was truly similar.

What’s the most impressive words you’ve ever received about yourself as a basketball player?

While I was in the ABA and was feeling down because I didn’t get much playing time and didn’t perform better, a fan asked me for my autograph. But because I was feeling down, I declined it.

And then, the team’s captain told me, “If you are a pro, you’ve got to understand that you can be a pro because of the fans. You can’t play well because you don’t have the sense of professionalism.” Those words really stuck in my head.

Which NBA players are currently your favorite role models? And who’s your favorite player of all time?

There are many, though I would say (Phoenix Suns guard Steve) Nash and (Miami Heat guard Dwyane) Wade. But my No. 1 player is still Michael Jordan.

In your opinion, who is the best overall player in the bj-league? What makes him No. 1?

I would like to think without (mentioning) foreign players in this case. When I think of a better player, I look at his effort, how much dirty works he does, and things like that as well.

I can’t really talk about other teams’ players, but within our team Tsubasa Yonamine is one of the best players. While he is a good player, he is a best friend of mine also.

He doesn’t have ups and downs (in the game), and always tries to be consistent and can be patient when he needs to.

Away from the basketball court, how do you enjoy your leisure time?

You know what? The way I relax away from the game is basketball. I distinguish the game as a job from private games, because in myself if I think playing basketball is a job, it’s not all that fun.

I’m playing some street ball and also playing for a club team. So I’m always saying that I’m practicing too much (laughs).