OTSU – Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf understands what it takes to win consistently, and drastic changes, he insists, are not a recipe for success.
After the Kyoto Hannaryz’s season-ending playoff defeat to the Shiga Lakestars on Sunday, Abdul-Rauf spoke in calm, measured tones about the difficult challenges of maintaining a team’s nucleus of players and how a front office needs to make careful, wise decisions as it moves forward.
Here’s the NBA veteran’s unsolicited advice to the Hannaryz’s brain trust:
“Whether I’m here or not, when you are trying to build championship teams, and I’m not telling anybody what do to, but when you’ve come this far and you’ve finally developed chemistry with a group of people, you try to hold on to them as much as possible.
“When you look at the (Los Angeles) Lakers of old and the Boston Celtics of now, a lot of these teams keep players because they understand that if they’ve got the right players that can play and are gifted, then it’s just a matter of time of, OK, having them understand the team concept and what we are trying to accomplish and fit into a role and getting it done.
“Having the talent is the first (step). So now once you’ve got that, it’s OK, you see that the chemistry was developing and people understand each other and know their likes and dislikes, they love each other, they get along, they hang around each other.
“Try to keep as many as you can. I know for some it’s going to be difficult because there’s going to be bigger contracts and other offers, but if you’re trying to win, I would say do that with as many as you can.”
Abdul-Rauf scored 14 points in the series opener against Shiga last Saturday, adding six more points in Game 2 and two more in the 10-minute tiebreaker game.
Now, as is the case every offseason for an aging pro player, the veteran of 586 NBA games and 15 postseason appearances for the Denver Nuggets in 1994-95, faces an uncertain future in this business. But that won’t keep him from making necessary preparations for another season.
“I’m starting my workouts tomorrow,” he vowed on Sunday afternoon. “I worked out four days a week anyway outside of our training, so I start tomorrow. For me, I start immediately. I don’t wait and take all that time off. I’m looking to play as long as somebody wants to have me.”
Will the former All-American scoring sensation from Louisiana State return to Kyoto?
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “You never know what’s in the organization’s mind.”
If not Kyoto, will Abdul-Rauf, the No. 3 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, entertain offers from other bj-league teams, including, possibly, the four new expansion clubs — Shinshu Brave Warriors, Chiba Jets, Yokohama B-Corsairs and Iwate Big Bulls?
“Again, you never know what people are thinking,” he blurted out. “You would think based on what you bring to the table that would, but I’ve been in situations where I’ve done extremely well in a country and you don’t even get called back.”
Kyoto accomplished a number of firsts in 2010-11: first winning season, first playoff appearance, first postseason victory (88-80 against Shiga) and first playoff series defeat. To build a winning foundation, there will be setbacks along the way.
“These things happen,” said Abdul-Rauf, who averaged 14.6 points in an NBA career that spanned from 1990-2001. “You have to have a winner and a loser. The fact that we got here (was significant). We won the first one, again we’re not satisfied, and there’s a lot more improvement that we can make.
“It’s a start.”
Abdul-Rauf played a valuable role for the young team, dishing out advice, hitting big shots, providing a voice of reason as the club struggled to find its identity last season as an expansion team and then transformed into a playoff contender this season.
“Compared to last year, this team has definitely grown,” he noted. “We won more games. We had more chemistry this year than last year. It was beautiful, man, for me. The guys that we have on this team, everybody pretty much gets along . . . and that makes it easy.”
What was the biggest lesson the Hannaryz learned in their second season of existence?
“Playing together makes the game easier,” said Abdul-Rauf, who turned 42 in March. “I think if you look at how we were in the beginning of the eason and toward the end of the season we were playing better basketball as a team.
“A lot of times if you look at the final scores we had pretty balanced scoring . . . and other guys were picking it up, and we were passing the ball with more movement. And it makes the game easier; you don’t have to work as hard. And you have more fun because everybody’s touching it.”
The league’s elder statesman among players, Abdul-Rauf refuses to look at the game as something similar to rocket science or advanced calculus. To him, fun is the key.
“What I usually say before games to the guys is, ‘Let’s not worry about the wins. Let’s just go out, let’s work hard, have fun and work together, and if everything’s in place, the win’s going to come,’ ” he said, recounting his typical message.
He added: “Sometimes you think of wins too much you put unnecessary added pressure on yourself.”
Glancing at the Lakestars and Hannaryz rosters last weekend, you were reminded that Abdul-Rauf was wrapping up his high school career when several current players were either just learning to walk or still in diapers. Case in point: He was born 17 years before teammate Sunao Murakami. In other words, his athletic longevity is impressive.
Lakestars center Ray Schafer, whose team played eight regular games and the tiebreak mini-game against Kyoto this season, can say with certainty that the 185-cm Abdul-Rauf still has the passion and the skills to be a productive player in this league.
“He’s just solid,” Schafer told me moments after his team advanced to the Western Conference semifinals. “Yesterday’s game down the stretch we did the fouls, and he couldn’t miss (at the line). For his size, you would think it would be a huge disadvantage, but he’s tough as nails down there on defense (in the paint). He doesn’t take crap, he gives it.
“I’m really impressed by him as a veteran player, game in and game out to come out to be solid and give the team what they need.”
A number of fans and players, coaches and front-office personnel from around the league have made similar comments to me since Abdul-Rauf arrived in Japan in 2009.
Editor’s note: This week’s bj-league notebook, featuring a breakdown of the weekend’s four playoff series, is posted on The Japan Times’ website.