The Japan Times features periodic interviews with personalities in the bj-league. Coach Alan “Al” Westover of the Shiga Lakestars is the subject of this week’s profile.
Hometown: Napa, California
College: University of the Pacific (1972-76)
Pro background: Westover coached the Melbourne Tigers of Australia’s National Basketball League for six-plus seasons, leading the team to a 134-74 record and two championships. He was fired last season while the team was 6-12 and out of the playoff race. He served as Lindsay Gaze’s assistant for 13 seasons (1992-2005) before assuming the top position. All told, he was on the Tigers coaching staff for 20 seasons.
Westover’s 64.4 career winning percentage (minimum 100 games) is second in NBL history, according to published reports. In addition, the Melbourne-based Herald Sun reported that Westover was a part of teams that amassed 17 championships in juniors, state leagues and in the NBL. Westover was a Melbourne Tigers guard before his coaching career began.
Noteworthy: Colleagues Tom Wisman, head coach of the Japan national team, and Bruce Palmer, JBL squad Link Tochigi Brex’s bench boss, have both previously guided teams in the NBL.
What are your key objectives for the Lakestars before they begin their fourth season in October?
Probably the key objective is to get our roster settled. We’ve yet to do that, and then it’ll be to implement my system, because it’ll be different from what they’ve done in the past. Hopefully, we’ll have that in place by the time we play our first game.
Can you describe the basic concepts of your system?
It’s similar to a lot of coaches’ systems. We’ll run a transition game and I like it to be a structured transition. We have a half-court offense that I call the Shuffle — used by the Melbourne Tigers the last 20 years. It’s a bit similar to a triangle offense. It’s a motion offense and it takes a while to teach, because every player has to know every position on the floor.
When it’s working, it’s a fun way to play and a fun thing to watch because it incorporates a lot of player movement and ball movement.
You can be a good player in the system but not be one to get good stats . . . Just cutting, passing and setting screens you can set up teammates to get good scoring chances.
What about on defense?
I like an aggressive man-to- man defense: put pressure on the ball, communicate and help and be prepared to rotate. All we’ve worked on so far is man-to-man defense.
Hopefully when all the players get here, we’ll incorporate a little zone. . . . Primarily, we’ve been training with six or seven guys.
We’ll be emphasizing the man defense. I really believe if you’re going to be successful you’re going to have to guard people.
Have you reviewed film of Shiga’s 2010-11 season? If so, what were the team’s strengths and weaknesses in our mind?
I saw about four of their games from last year, including one playoff game. I also saw the Final Four (at Ariake Colosseum). That was entertaining and good basketball.
(Reviewing the film), I got a glimpse of what the group was doing last year. We have a couple of those players back, but largely it’s going to be a different team.
I thought they had a lot of talent, no doubt about that; some very good players, lots of talent. . . . The games I viewed, I thought they were playing with a lot of anxiety. It’s like every time they got the ball, it was like the 10-second shot clock.
We’ll try to play with a little more structure and discipline . . .
(Reporter’s note: Point guards Takamichi Fujiwara and Shinya Ogawa, shooting guard Yu Okada and forward Josh Peppers have returned for the upcoming season. Workhorse forward Kazuya “J.” Hatano, a member of the Osaka Evessa’s three title-winning teams, joined the team this offseason.)
What are the keys to achieving that goal?
The keys are to get this new group playing well, playing together and playing to their strengths.
What will it take to be a Final Four contender?
They’ve all got to be on the same page. They all have to buy into what I’m going to teach, accept that and embrace it. And if we get everyone doing that, we’ll be on the right track.
So that’s going to be a big part of it, the new guys getting to know the ones we have coming back.
What are a few trademarks of what you demand from your players?
It’s always a team thing with the talent you brought back. . . . There’s a big emphasis on team play. As a coach, my emphasis is always on defense and effort and if you execute, opportunities will come. You can’t have players out there worrying about scoring.
Reflecting on your playing and coaching career in Australia, how have those experiences shaped your philosophies and basic approach to the game?
I’m a product of all that. Pretty much, I developed as a player and as a coach in Australia. I went there right after college. I was fortunate to play for Lindsay Gaves, national team coach and coach of the Melbourne Tigers.
He was a lot different than American coaches. His system was enjoyable. I like his approach to the game. . . . He was not a hard ass. We always call him Lin.
What was different about your college basketball experiences and those in Australia?
(He described the basic obsession many players and coaches had to make the NBA, as if that was the only acceptable goal.)
In Australia, players were a lot different, more down to earth. I just enjoyed playing the game. Basketball was fun to me again. I think that’s why I stayed as long I can.
I was very fortunate to stay as long as I did — 14 years. I played for Lin for six years and coached alongside him for 14. It was a great learning experience. . . . He was my mentor. A lot of what I do is stuff I learned from Lindsay, but I’ve learned to improve and put my own little touch on things. I really enjoyed all that time.
There are nine foreign coaches in the 19-team bj-league this season along with 80 or 90 foreign players. How can that help develop a wide range of playing styles and keep things interesting for players, fans, journalists and the coaches, too?
I think it’s a pretty exciting time for Japanese basketball with that many teams and variety of coaches coaching it. It’s a lot of different styles. It reminds me of the NBL in Australia in the earlier days.
When I arrived in the 1970s, with five imports (on our team), they helped shape the game.
(Westover explained that the NBL’s import rules changed over time, as the Australian players’ overall quality of play improved. The reduction from an unlimited number of imports per team, he said, has gradually gone down to four, three, and then to two, including a naturalized citizen.)
This is similar to here, the imports dominating things, but I really think that helped Australian basketball grow because the Australian team wasn’t really that good or successful.
Now, Australia is always competing at the world championships and the Olympics. I think the standard in Australia has really taken off.
An article in the Melbourne newspaper The Age from 2005 described you as “an animated coach . . . stomping around in his trademark boots and pumping his arms to celebrate a good play.” So, I need to ask, have you brought several pairs of cowboy boots from Australia for your walks around the shore of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture and, of course, for game day?
(He laughs and admits he only brought one pair of boots to Japan.)
I’m from California, but I wear cowboy boots to coach in. It’s more of a fashion statement than anything else. My thing is always to change my boots after a loss. Hopefully I picked the lucky pair. I only brought one suitcase.
(Reporter’s note: Westover is prepared for the inevitable, however. He has already found a local shop that sells cowboys boots. “I might pick up a pair while I’m there,” he said.)