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Hamaguchi’s steady hand on tiller steers 89ers in right direction

by Ed Odeven

KASUKABE, Saitama Pref. — It’s no shock that the Sendai 89ers are once again one of the most consistent, quality clubs in the bj-league. Above all, it begins with good coaching.

Since the team entered the bj-league in 2005, Honoo Hamaguchi has been at the helm, steering the team in the right direction, confidently, capably and with a never-waving commitment to team-first basketball.

In an age of reality TV, with instant celebrities made every day through Twitter, YouTube and related mediums, Hamaguchi doesn’t crave attention. But he approaches his job with a singular goal in mind: success.

The 89ers (24-12), who are in second place in the seven-team Eastern Conference, were to face the rival Niigata Albirex BB on the road this weekend, but with the devastating earthquake in Tohoku and widespread tsunami, the bj-league opted to cancel all weekend games. It remains unclear at press time if next week’s 89ers games will proceed as scheduled. Hamaguchi and half the team returned to Sendai around 3.30 a.m. Sunday.

Sendai hopes to get back into action with a big two-game series against the defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix on March 19-20.

In the team’s inaugural season, the 89ers went 18-22, followed by a 19-21 record in 2006-07. They then had three straight winning seasons in succession: 29-15, 31-21 and 35-17, as the league expanded its schedule and added more teams each year. After last Sunday’s victory over the Saitama Broncos to complete a two-game sweep, Hamaguchi’s club improved to 156-108 in regular-season games under his leadership.

By all accounts, that’s solid work from the bench.

Osaka Evessa power forward Lynn Washington, a two-time MVP who led his club to titles in each of the bj-league’s first three seasons, believes Hamaguchi is one of the league’s true success stories.

“He is a great coach,” Washington said. “He expects all of his players to be professional. I have heard stories of him making all players follow a set of rules such as no hats, ear rings, and proper body attire is a must. I have never heard anyone, coaches or players, talk bad about Hamaguchi-san.

“They all say he is a great leader that demands professionalism from all his players. I could easily play for someone like that.”

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Hamaguchi, who turned 42 in December, has been in the league longer than most of the 16 team’s current coaches. He’s in the middle of the pack in terms of age, but he’s at a time in life where he’s growing into his role as a mentor for young men, many of whom are nearly half his age.

The Oshima Island native believes sticking to simple, realistic goals is the recipe for Sendai’s success.

“My philosophy has always consisted of three things,” Hamaguchi said at Kasukabe City Gymnasium.

“Respect each other; fundamental team basketball; and play hard, play together.”

He briefly explained each of those three main points during our post-game interview.

“Respect each other. I’m not like the top guy (just controlling) everything. If I don’t have players, then I can’t be the coach. If I don’t have a manager or a trainer, we can’t have a team, so respect to understand other players and other people to build the team,” Hamaguchi said.

“Fundamental team basketball. Now we have good talent but among the league I don’t think that we have super nice talent in comparison to other teams. If you take a look at only Japanese, I think Saitama has better Japanese players and other teams have better players.

“I think teams that think fundamentals are important should win games,” he added.

“Play hard, play together. The third philosophy came from my college coach (Hitachi Sunrockers head man Shuji Aono).”

All-Star forward Mike Bell, in his first season with Sendai, credits Hamaguchi for getting his players to embrace his coaching principals.

“He has us all playing together,” Bell said. “We’ve got the strengths of the team and then he has us try to work on it. . . . We’re always preparing.”

So what’s the focus of this preparation? I asked.

“It’s different every week,” Bell said. “It depends on who we’re playing. We focus obviously on teams’ key strengths, but really, man, it’s what we are going to do against them. We don’t really try to focus on what they are going to do great. It’s all about us playing, if we play as good as we can, then we have a chance to be successful.”

Broncos forward Gordon Klaiber said it’s clear that the Hamaguchi-led 89ers are a well-organized, disciplined club.

“I don’t think he focuses so much on the opponent,” Klaiber said. “I think it’s more of his team executing, and them playing solid team defense . . . and they have the talent to match up at any position. I think they have a good team and a good coach in getting everything across.

“I think he does a good job of communicating and controlling the game and the tempo. But if the game’s not going his way, he might call a timeout, he might slow it down or just run a play. So I think he does a good job of (drawing up a play) when they need a bucket.”

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Hamaguchi’s coaching career began in 1994, the year he turned 25. He worked as an assistant coach for seven years at Aichi Gakusen University. A few years later, he gained valuable experience by immersing himself in U.S. basketball culture, and in retrospect, he admitted, getting a chance to see different ways of doing things.

He headed overseas and spent time on the Biola (Calif.) University coaching staff (2002-03) and at Arizona State (2003-04), where he served as a volunteer assistant under Rob Evans, who’s now in his 41st season coaching at the collegiate level and fourth season as an assistant at Arkansas. Before joining the 89ers, Hamaguchi also worked for one season as a Toyota Motors Alvark assistant in 2004-05.

Hamaguchi’s dedication to his craft was evident nearly a decade ago during his time spent at the Pac-10 Conference school.

“I most certainly remember Ham,” Evans, wrote in an e-mail. “He was so diligent in his daily watching and note-taking. . . . He was there every single day early and always tried to stay in the background, but you could tell that he was soaking up every thing that went on in and out of practice. I am so excited to know that he is being successful, but it does not surprise me.”

Leaders are challenging during traumatic times to guide others. This will be Hamaguchi’s greatest challenge to date in ways that are not completely clear yet. But, hopefully, in time, the 89ers can once again lift the spirits of Miyagi Prefecture.