The Japan Times features periodic interviews with personalities in the bj-league. Coach Kazuo Nakamura of the Akita Northern Happinets is the subject of this week’s profile.
Coaching background: Nakamura made his coaching debut in 1966, when he began working as a high school girls basketball coach. He coached at that level until 1973 and won four national championships and had four runnerup squads in that span. He led the Japan Corporation (Kyodo Oil) women’s team from 1974-92, picking up five All-Japan titles and six WJBL crowns, including consecutive championships in 1978 and ’79, as well as 17 straight All-Japan Final Four appearances.
Nakamura coached at Akita Keizai Daigaku (now called North Asia University) from 1995-97. Under Nakamura, starting in 1998, OSG Phoenix (the forerunner to the bj-league’s Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix team) achieved a lot of success, including the 1999-2000 JBL title and a pair of runnerup finishes. In 2005-06, Nakamura led the club to the JBL Super League’s Final Four and once again in 2007-08. He served as the “B” head coach for the Japan women’s national team in 1978-79 and was promoted to top women’s coach in 1979-81 and again from 1985-90.
Noteworthy: The Phoenix went 117-33 in Nakamura’s three seasons in charge of the team after its defection to the bj-league. That sterling stint also included the Phoenix’s three Eastern Conference regular-season titles, three Final Four appearances and back-to-back championships. Then he stepped down and accepted a new challenge: to turn the second-year Akita Northern Happinets franchise into a winning franchise.
Coach, what are your goals for the team in your first season with the Happinets?
My goal is going to Ariake (Colosseum) for the Final Four. I’ve enjoyed the last three years going to Ariake, so I definitely want to go back this season.
How would you rate the team’s preparations for its season opener in October?
There’s been a little trouble (adjustments) as I’ve struggled with foreign players because they just got here, so they have some time to adjust to the team. So I still have a hard time to put the team together.
How’s the overall discipline of the team with the season opener still a few weeks away?
According to my plan, it’s going to be ready by the season opener (on Oct. 15 against the visiting Oita HeatDevils).
You had lots of success in leading the OSG Phoenix during the team’s JBL days and Hamamatsu after the team joined the bj-league. Do you think Akita, coming off an 18-32 season, can have similar results, starting in season two of its existence?
It took me 14 years to make the success in the previous team, but as I was winning the conditioning and the environment and my basketball abilities got gradually better and better. But it took me 14 years with OSG, so I think it is a tough thing, but it’s a new team and a new challenge.
When we spoke in Miyagi Prefecture during the 2009-10 All-Star weekend, you told me you’d like to coach until age 75. Is that still your plan?
I think I am fine right now, but I don’t know. It’s about who’s going to employ me for the next five years as well. I don’t know, but I think I can continue coaching until 80. That’s how I feel right now.
Which Japanese player do you think can be team’s most productive and important player this season on Akita?
(Forward) Kazuhiro Shoji.
He is an all-around player and he has a great, strong heart. When he was young, I knew how he played in college (University of Takushoku). We want to build the team, have the team, with him as the main player for this team and we want to adjust other players according to that kind of mentality.
Has Shoji been appointed the team captain?
No. It has been decided that guard Ryosuke Mizumachi is the captain.
What are your expectations for talented newcomers Michael Gardener, who played for you at Hamamatsu, and Casey Crawford?
I never expected Casey to be such a great shooter. I was surprised how well he took shots in Chiba (30 points, 5-for-7 on 3-pointers in the team’s season-opening 98-78 exhibition victory on Sept. 4 against the host Chiba Jets).
And what about Michael?
(He laughs.) It’s still undecided. I’m still watching him carefully. Think about (former NBA guard Allen) Iverson. He’s gong to be a player like that.
(Reporter’s note: Gardener, a quintessential gunner on the court, scored 25.5 points (No. 3 in the league), along with 6.75 assists (tops) and 2.35 steals (second) during the 2008-09 season with the Phoenix.)
What do you expect from guard/team manager Makoto Hasegawa, the longtime JBL star who turned 40 in April? He’s not a young player any more, so how much playing time do you think is ideal for him at this stage of his career?
I am still undecided. But the playing time is going to be the same thing for everybody else. We don’t know how much playing time anybody gets. We don’t know until we play.
Which foreign coaches would you say have been most influential on your career, such as through books, teaching videos or watching his teams in person?
I learned a lot from Coach K (longtime Duke bench boss and current United States head coach Mike Krzyzewski, winner of four NCAA championships with 11 Final Four teams) — practice atmosphere, game atmosphere. I went there (Durham, North Carolina) directly and met him in person. Also, when Coach K went to Hawaii, I met him there as well.
(Reporter’s note: The late Pete Newell, who ran his famous big man’s camps for decades after headline-grabbing success at the University of California and as the gold medal-winning U.S. coach at the 1960 Olympics, was another coaching giant whose name came up in our phone conversation. Nakamura stated that he “had a long relationship with him.”)
Were there any other big-name coaches who influenced you?
I spent a week in Indiana, met Bob Knight (the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history) and went to practice there for one week. But then Bobby told me I was too noisy and to never come back.
I walked into his personal area and was too noisy. I guess Bobby didn’t like that.
How did these experiences shape your coaching style?
I didn’t say I learned directly from them, but I liked the atmosphere (of the aforementioned giants of the industry) they created. I’d been coaching women’s teams, so it’s a bit different. When I was coaching girls, I learned from that atmosphere.
Also, I went to San Antonio and talked to NBA players before. I’d been working as an NBA commentator, so I went to the United States several times before.