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Veteran coach Pierce given a raw deal by Lakestars

by Ed Odeven

The coaching business is predictable in only this way: expect the unexpected.

Some coaches are super motivators; others are great at in-game adjustments. Some win multiple championships; others never guide their team to the finals.

Along the way, all coaches will deal with Rule No. 1: They will eventually be fired. Job security is never a reality.

Bob Pierce, who gave the Shiga Lakestars his blood, sweat and tears for two years, is out of a job. This is no surprise, but it doesn’t exactly make sense, even in an era of short attention spans and a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude.

The first head coach in team history, Pierce did not receive a new contract despite leading Shiga to its first playoff berth and a 10-win improvement (in a 52-game season) from its inaugural season in 2008-09, when it posted a 19-33 record. (The Lakestars, in fact, only finished five games out of first place in the ultra-competitive, seven-team Western Conference.) To believe that this decision was entirely Pierce’s is to believe that suddenly every child on earth will declare that they dislike chocolate.

One team source theorized that the decision not to bring the American back might be attributed to a combination of sponsor discontent and the unhappiness of influential guard Takamichi Fujiwara with Pierce’s coaching philosophy.

There were reports in February that the Lakestars had fired Pierce and offered the head coaching position to his assistant, Takatoshi Ishibashi, who reportedly refused to accept it. And so the status quo remained — well, sort of.

Pierce finished out the season as Shiga’s coach, guiding the team to 14 wins in its last 20 games.

Intelligent fans will tell you that the way a team finishes a season is more important than how it began it.

With Pierce putting his stamp on the team’s identity as much as anybody within the organization, the Lakestars have developed a loyal following in Kansai and they gained recognition by the league before the playoffs kicked off. Shiga received the Best Booster Prize for the 2009-10 season.

“Win it all now,” is an unrealistic mantra for most teams, but building a successful organization and earning admiration for doing things the right way — this includes demonstrating a commitment to tenacious defense, an entertaining, balanced offense, being a strong presence in the community, being and advocate for the bj-league on the national, regional and global levels and having a proven track record of developing Japanese players — were all major components of Pierce’s two-year stint with the Lakestars.

Yet to believe that Shiga, a team in one of the league’s smallest markets, would win a title in its second season, is to assume the U.S. national debt will disappear in the next 1,000 days. But by unceremoniously slamming the door on the Pierce era and beginning anew, the Lakestars are, essentially calling the past two seasons a failure.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

One longtime Japanese hoop fan from Osaka wrote me a letter earlier this spring and praised the ascension of shooting guard Masashi Joho to the upper echelon of the league’s Japanese stars. She called him this nation’s “bearer of basketball” in the future. Indeed, it’s a profound statement, but not a ridiculous notion.

Appearing in four finals — two with the Osaka Evessa and two with the Tokyo Apache — in his first four years in the league, Joho gave Shiga a veteran with championship experience, a much-admired, gusty player who thrived under Pierce’s guidance. Joho scored a career-high 15.0 points per game this season.

Now the Lakestars will return to square one with a new coach, possibly Ishibashi.

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Pierce, who has served as an Asia-based NBA scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers and worked for the JBL’s Hitachi Sunrockers as well as for the Japan national team, will look for a new team to coach. He has indicated he would like to remain in Japan and coach another bj-league team.

Many others wish the same thing.

During the Final Four last weekend at Ariake Colosseum, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix guard/forward William Knight, who has played on pro teams in Europe, Asia and the United States, told me that Pierce really cares about the future of Japanese basketball. The UCLA product also said that Pierce “is good for the game (of basketball) in the bj-league.”

Forward Mikey Marshall, who joined the Lakestars in March, and played a vital role in the team’s success over the final months of the season used nothing but complimentary words to describe the way Pierce ran the team.

“I feel that Coach Pierce did a great job with the Lakestars,” Marshall told The Japan Times. “With the record the team had last season compared to this season, I’m not sure how a team could let a coach go! This business works in mysterious ways, even with players.

“In a way I’m surprised, but this business is crazy, so I’m not surprised,” he added.

Marshall, whose playing career includes time at Texas Tech under the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history (Bob Knight) and a championship season under Kensaku Tennichi, who has guided the Evessa to five Final Four appearances in five seasons, knows a thing or two about the characteristics of successful coaches.

His positive analysis of Pierce’s impact on the Lakestars also included the following observations:

• “I feel that he kept the team well-prepared for each game because that is an important part of his game.”

• “He treated everyone the same. I think that was the most special (thing) — the way he treated people.”

Lakestars center Ray Schafer agreed with Marshall’s analysis.

“Coach Bob is someone who has a sincere love for the game of basketball,” said Schafer. “As a student and teacher of the game, he takes great care in bettering this sport for all those around him. He sees the bigger picture of this sport in how it has and will affect generations to come for the better.

“It was an honor and a blessing to have played the past two seasons for Coach Pierce.”

Power forward Gary Hamilton, who thrived under Pierce’s tutelage, called his experience playing for his outgoing coach a positive experience.

“I feel the team has a vision and is looking to go in a different direction,” said Hamilton, who led the bj-league in rebounds this season and was the team leader in assists, blocked shots and steals.

“Although the Lakestars and Coach Pierce split ways, I think he did an excellent job from his first year to the second and made huge strides. With all the different rumors surrounding the league, players would always hear different things, so no I’m not surprised and I’m sure there will be many more changes with the expansion teams coming in.

“With basketball being a business I’m not sure how it actually went down, but I can assure you that they left on good terms and being at the final team party it was comfortable being around everyone.”

He added: “Coach Pierce’s ability to recruit solid players was the best thing he brought to the team.”

* * * * *

Word has reached The Japan Times that a Kansai-based sportswriter with a major national daily newspaper contacted the Lakestars after the team was eliminated from the playoffs in mid-May and the team refused to grant him permission to conduct an interview with the outgoing coach.

To his credit, the reporter spoke to Pierce anyway. (This is a free country, right?)

Then, I have been informed, the paper refused to run the story because, you can assume, it feared a backlash from the Lakestars.

So here’s what I want to know: What is the team trying to hide? Did something happen behind the scenes that the public ought to know about?

And why didn’t the team publish a statement on its Web site and the league’s site to summarize Pierce’s accomplishments during his time as Shiga’s coach?

Wouldn’t that have been a positive gesture, a show of respect, for the success the team had in the first era of its existence?

Wouldn’t that have proven that the team has class?

When given the chance to comment for this story, the Lakestars declined.

And so basketball fans will only hear one side of the story. But the opinions expressed above carry weight and illustrate the fact that Pierce led his club the right way and did so with passion, a commitment to excellence and a desire to see the sport grow in Japan.

For that, he deserves credit, a pat on the back, a simple “thank you,” for a job well done and best wishes in the future.

And one more thing: He deserves a shot to coach another bj-league team next season.