The Japan Times will be featuring periodic interviews with players in the bj-league. The league’s fifth season began in October. William “Billy” Knight of the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix is the subject of this week’s profile.
Ht: 196 cm; Wt: 97 kg
Hometown: Los Angeles
Noteworthy: Knight is among the league’s top 10 in scoring (19.1 points per game, No. 8), free-throw shooting accuracy (79.1 percent) and 3-point shooting accuracy (36.4 percent, No. 9). The All-Star has helped the Eastern Conference-leading Phoenix win 32 of their 40 games entering this weekend. . . . An online profile of Knight, archived on the basketballbeyondborders.com Web site calls him “a player possessing an extremely high basketball IQ.” The report adds, “(He is) an inspiring leader that is a ‘do-everything’ player on the court.” . . . His professional career has also taken him to Austria, the Netherlands, Cyprus, Sweden, France, Greece, Venezuela, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and China, as well as playing ball in the ABA and the IBL.
What is your impression of Phoenix coach Kazuo Nakamura’s persona and abilities as a coach?
His trademark is his discipline. He’s real stern with us and that helps us focus more on basketball and be more complete players. He’s actually the first coach I’ve seen focus on basketball 24/7. He lives, eats, sleeps and drinks basketball. I admire his love for basketball.
I love basketball, too, but he (really) loves the game.
In terms of Xs and Os what stands out about Nakamura’s approach to the game?
He doesn’t know current NBA players, but he definitely knows the Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls era. We run the triangle offense like the Bulls. He still watches the Bulls tapes.
We run a similar offense and coach does a real good job teaching it.
His defense is the 3-2, like a matchup zone, and also a 2-3 matchup zone and he just really likes to pressure the ball. That’s his team’s trademark: getting deflections and steals and causing havoc on the court.
That’s why we’ve won a lot of games. We rely on our defense first. That’s why coach stresses defense first and offense second. It’s led to us being the highest-scoring team (87.3 ppg). That’s how you win championships: defense.
When you arrived in Hamamatsu did you expect that the team had the right mix of players to be a championship-caliber club?
From Day One, at our first practice, I saw the American guys and the Japanese guys, and the Japanese guys — Masahiro Oguchi, Shingo Okada, Kazutoshi Ota and Atsuya Ota — they impressed me the most.
Usually, in Europe, when the European players are bad, the Americans have to do too much. But here, I was like, We are going to win the championship. I said that to Wendell White.
How vital has White been to the team’s success?
He’s probably the MVP of the league. But without the help from the Japanese players we would not be No. 1. Teams would double team him or whoever would have the ball (reducing their overall effectiveness).
This team’s Japanese players have high basketball IQ and that allows us to win games. It takes pressure off the Americans.
(Note: White, a UNLV product, is the league’s third-leading scorer at 23.4 ppg. He is No. 6 in assists at 4.0 per game, sixth in steals at 1.9 and seventh in dunks at 1.1.)
What do you consider this team’s biggest strength?
Our strength is that everyone is in great shape. That allows us to get fast breaks, and we are a good offensive team. We have a lot of scoring power, another one of our threats.
I think we are in the best shape of any team in the league.
In your opinion, what has made Hamamatsu such a physically fit team?
It’s a combination of everything (and) the discipline the coach gives us. We don’t really have party guys, either. Everyone eats pretty healthy. That off-court dedication helps us on the court.
We don’t run all day. We don’t practice like in college, running line drills. We practice real hard for one hour or two, do weights and we all eat right.
I don’t see guys who eat fast food or go to McDonald’s on the team. That helps out on why we are in such great shape. It’s not just one or two guys, it’s the whole team. We have a pretty old team and we are still in shape.
As the regular season enters the final stretch and the Phoenix prepare for the playoffs, what’s the key to maintaining the team’s level of excellence?
We just have to think defense first. Because I have been watching the NCAA tournament, I’ve seen lots of games, and teams that are thinking offense first lose. The bj-league’s Final Four is like the NCAA tournament.
For our team, we have good scouting reports and good assistant coaches and Nakamura has a good scouting plan to defend the other team.
What makes Sendai such a formidable foe, especially considering the 89ers recently won 10 straight games?
They are really big and they rely on rebounding and playing defense, too. They are going to be a real tough matchup for us, too.
Sendai coach (Honoo) Hamaguchi is coaching at a similar level. He’s a good coach. He relies on defense first and he has a lot of strategies for stopping players defensively. . . .
They want to beat you defensively.
Looking back on your time at UCLA (1997-2002), a school with a rich tradition in college basketball, what does it mean to you to be a part of that history?
It feels great to come from UCLA, a big basketball school. Just the tradition alone, with all the NBA players and overseas players, and even J.R. Henderson (J.R. Sakuragi) and Charles O’Bannon playing here in Japan in the JBL, it’s like a brotherhood. .T.T. It’s cool, and if anyone needs some help, we help each other out.
What are some specific memories or moments you cherish from your time at UCLA?
Well, I met Bill Walton and (coaching legend) John Wooden.
Wooden came to all my games and he gave tips on how to win, and even at his old age he still knew what was going on. To see him still focusing on the current team makes you appreciate the tradition.
I still go back to campus and play. . . . It’s just a great institution and a great program to go to. Being from Inglewood, I really didn’t have to travel. It’s the best school on the West Coast for basketball.
Do you still keep in touch with a lot of ex-Bruins?
I still have a lot of friends — Baron Davis (Clippers), Earl Watson (Pacers), Matt Barnes (Magic), Jason Kapono (Raptors), Russell Westbrook (Thunder) — in the NBA.
I see them every summer and hang out with them. We take vacations together and stay in touch. . . . I went to Charles O’Bannon’s house in the States and saw him here in Japan.
(Note: O’Bannon is a star player for the rival JBL’s Toyota Motors Alvark.)
What have been your top memories and biggest thrills as a basketball player?
My biggest memory to date as a basketball player is my first UCLA game. Just seeing my name on the UCLA jersey was my biggest highlight.
I also like to brag about playing for the Harlem Globetrotters after college for one-half year. (laughs)
Do you feel comfortable playing for the Phoenix?
I hope to continue playing in Japan now. It’s a good league, well structured, and also Hamamatsu is a really good organization, one of the most professional teams I have ever seen, with our own gym and weight room. . . . We have a trainer, we have a gym we can come in and use 24 hours a day.
In France, we shared a gym with a soccer team. We couldn’t really get extra shooting practice nor do extra work at the gym.
This team reminds me of a college or NBA team with the structure they have.
What led you to come to Japan to play ball?
I heard good things from Charles O’Bannon two or three years ago. He told me that the teams are organized and they treat you well.
Also, I had an opportunity to come here four or five years ago. My agent said a Japanese coach, Nakamura, was in Boston last summer to watch guys work out.
I flew to Boston and in one day I had to go out there and practice and then after that he said he liked me and wanted to sign me.
What opinions did you hear about Nakamura before you actually suited up and played for his team?
People say he cuts a lot of players and he’s crazy, but he’s not. He’s really big on discipline. Coming from UCLA, I am really disciplined myself. It was an easy transition to go from UCLA to Nakamura. Like at UCLA, I couldn’t have facial hair and had to dress nice on road trips.
He’s not that extreme, but he likes us to come to practice 30 minutes or an hour early. But that’s how I am. I haven’t had any problems with the coach.
I am the oldest American (31 years old) and I like to help out. If coach has a conflict with the players, I want to help out and speak to the players.
Growing up in California before traveling all over the world as a basketball player, do you think you now have different perspectives about various cultures and the world in general?
I see the world in a totally different light now. I was totally sheltered growing up in Inglewood, just hanging out with black guys and basketball guys.
I have adapted to other cultures. Here I have been eating a lot of sushi and seaweed and drinking green tea, and in France I ate croissants and French bread.
I like talking to different people and seeing their cultures and how it makes sense. . . .
In Japan, it’s really a different perspective and it’s nice to se a difference side of the world and a different culture. Here, they bow and in France they kiss each other on the cheek and say bonjour.
It just makes you appreciate life more and love life more.
If you weren’t a basketball player what career would you have pursued, and what career are you interested in having in the future?
I already know what I’m going to do. I am going to be a firefighter. I like helping people and I just think that would be a nice career move for me; if not a firefighter, then a coach or a trainer.
It would have to be something with basketball, or something with helping people. You know, coaching is as tough as playing, but right after playing I want to coach, assist or develop basketball players.
In every country I have been to I have learned different aspects of basketball — moves, psychology, or the way people think.
When you are not playing basketball, how do you relax? And what are your hobbies?
I like to play video games. I play a lot of Xbox, and I am on the Internet talking to my family back home on Skype.
Also, I just walk around the city, go to the temples or go food shopping, and I’m also trying to learn Japanese.
I stay pretty busy off the court.