The Akita Northern Happinets fired coach Bob Pierce on Monday night, clearing the path for a possible titanic shift in the bj-league’s coaching landscape.
“I just heard from a Japanese coach that there’s a rumor going around that (Kazuo) Nakamura will leave Hamamatsu and return to Akita,” Pierce told The Japan Times.
Nakamura, a 70-year-old Akita native, has led the defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (40-6 in the regular season) to three consecutive Eastern Conference regular-season titles and a trip to the Final Four this weekend. In a decades-long career that included time in the JBL, the highly decorated bench boss also coached at Akita Keizai University (now called North Asia University) from 1995-97.
The Happinets went 18-32 in their inaugural season under Pierce. The team also played in the revamped East playoffs, dropping a pair of games to the Niigata Albirex BB on May 7-8.
Now, Pierce, 50, is looking for work.
“That’s after being reassured mid-season that I was doing a good job and they wanted me back for a second season, which would then be judged more harshly by wins and losses,” he said.
“So what happened? Apparently they started off last year with (Yuki) Mizuno as the team president, and as the season went on I met one or two other guys who were directors, who obviously had a say in things, but it was never really clear what their role was as Mizuno as the president and (Makoto) Hasegawa as the playing manger were always the front men.”
From Pierce’s perspective, the Happinets executives changed their outlook as the season progressed, scrapping the team’s initial modest goals as its inner circle widened.
“Well it turns out that they went from three directors to about six by the end of the season, giving out this title and accompanying power to the heads of some of the companies that gave money as sponsors,” Pierce said. “So at the end of the season there were six voices expressing opinions about what to do for next season. And suddenly wins and losses became important. I didn’t win enough, so I’m out.
“Never mind that I was told that all that was important is that we get lots of fans out to the games. The result being that we were No. 2 in attendance behind Ryukyu, and along with Shimane received the Best Booster Award.”
Hometown favorite Hasegawa, who turned 40 in April, is the face of the franchise. That didn’t make Pierce’s job easy nor did it permit the coach’s normal role—to insert players into the lineup as he chooses — to take place.
Of the 33 games that the injury-prone Hasegawa played in, Pierce noted that he never subbed the guard in or out of the lineup.
“He put himself in and out of the games that he played because fans in Akita came to see him. So he played as much as he wanted,” was the way Pierce described the situation.
Hasegawa’s role clearly became a point of contention for the team, though he deserves credit for helping lure new sponsors to the team and increasing the team’s fan base.
“Hasegawa is a great guy, and worked tirelessly for this team every day of the year,” Pierce said. “But he couldn’t guard anyone on the court, couldn’t practice full time, spending most of his time rehabbing on the sidelines. Some of the American players would complain that it was like playing four against five when he came in, or that they would work hard to build a lead, only to see it disappear when Hasegawa took the court. But they also understood it was one of the things we had to do to build the fan base in Akita, because ‘winning wasn’t important,’ or so they said.”
Other missteps contributed to Akita’s losing season.
“We had a translator who couldn’t translate,” said Pierce, who conducts interviews in Japanese on a regular basis. “Maybe the worst I’ve ever been around. … I often spent more time un-translating his mistakes than actually giving out new information.”
In retrospect, Pierce didn’t believe the team’s roster makeup, primarily selected by others on staff, was adequate.
“Our Japanese players may have been the worst in the league, with our best scorer, (Kazuhiro) Shoji, ranked only 31st among all Japanese players at 6.0 (points per game),” Pierce said of the 37-year-old forward, adding that the team didn’t have any Japanese standouts in their prime, the group he identified as between ages 25-28.
In three seasons in the bj-league, Pierce has a 66-88 record and two playoff appearances, guiding the Shiga Lakestars to a 10-win improvement in 2009-10 (29-23 record) over their first season.
Pierce’s leadership and ability to identify talent helped Akita secure a few key wins after the All-Star break. Though the former NBA scout voiced frustration that he had zero input in the team’s draft selections and Japanese player signings last summer.
He cited the example of Korean big man Jung Se Young’s impact as a key move.
“I finally was able to put him in the starting lineup on Feb. 27,” Pierce said. “From Feb. 27 to March 27, with Se Young in the starting lineup we beat Osaka, Tokyo, and Hamamatsu — three really good teams and all three games on the road. And then they let him go, rather than pay extra money in salary for April and May.
“He was a starter. He helped us beat three of the best teams in the league. He would have been a key player for us in the playoffs against Niigata if he had been here. But I get fired for not winning.”
Team stability, though, was something Pierce worked tirelessly for in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake.
“We were the only team in the East that kept all of our American players, and one of only four or five teams in the whole league that didn’t have an American player leave after the earthquake,” he said. “That didn’t happen by accident.”
Never one to shy away from speaking his mind to the media, Pierce knows being a pro coach is not an occupation for weak-minded individuals.
“Anyway, it’s the life of a coach,” he said of being fired. “But sad to see Akita now being run by a committee, which is exactly how most of the company teams are run in the JBL, with different OB (old boy) factions fighting over who runs the team. That system has worked out well for the JBL, hasn’t it?”
Pierce is one of several bj-league coaches—David Benoit (Saitama, Kyoto), Dai Oketani (Oita, Ryukyu), John Neumann (Fukuoka, Takamatsu), Tadaharu Ogawa (Oita, Fukuoka), Hirokazu Nema (Toyama, Shiga), Charles Johnson (Saitama, Toyama) and Takatoshi Ishibashi (Toyama, Shiga) and Masato Fukushima (Toyama, Saitama) are the others—to guide two teams in the young league. No coach has been handed the reins—as an interim or full-fledged head coach—of a third team yet.
Internal conflict: Already, the Happinets are at the crossroads: organizational stability or a possible reshuffling of its top leadership.
Or as Pierce pointed out: “After our meeting late last night, (Seiichi) Oba, who is the ‘GM’ told me that he wanted to resign, because ‘no one listens to my opinion anyway,’ and he knows he’s just a figure head, with no real power or authority. Hasegawa asked him not to, because he needs someone else to take the burden off him in all the meet-and-greet situations that are part of running this team.
“But it’s the board of directors behind the scenes now that are making this decision. And Oba said he wouldn’t be surprised if they force Yuki Mizuno out in a year or two as well.”
Coaching carousel: The Kyoto Hannaryz, meanwhile, are also set to part ways with coach Kazuto Aono, who recently completed his first full season at the helm, a league source said. The Hannaryz went 28-20 this season, an 11-win improvement over their inaugural campaign in 2009-10.