The Iwate Big Bulls are about to begin experiencing something every professional sports team must encounter: an inaugural season.
Iwate, a bj-league expansion team, begins play without a history or an identity. The team faces the visiting Sendai 89ers in the opening weekend of the bj-league’s 2011-12 season as a region devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami welcomes a new pro team as a source of regional pride and entertainment.
In other first-weekend matchups, the Niigata Albirex BB play host to the Shinshu Brave Warriors, another first-year club. Another expansion squad, the Yokohama B-Corsairs, takes on the two-time defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix. This season’s fourth expansion squad, the Chiba Jets, begins its season next weekend.
Indeed, the Big Bulls’ season will be filled with first accomplishments and disappointments, and it all starts Saturday under veteran coach Vlasios Vlaikidis.
Saturday’s game is set to begin at 12:30 p.m. in Morioka, followed by Sunday’s rematch at 2.
Above all, Vlaikidis has stressed the importance of team defense to his players, emphasizing that point at his first news conference when he was hired in May to lead the team.
“Everything starts from defense,” Vlaikidis declared at the time.
Looking ahead to the regular season, Vlaikidis told The Japan Times in a recent interview that he has worked hard to instill confidence in his players and build a team he hopes will be competitive every game.
“Yes, it is early yet, but we will try to make a team that will fight, run and shoot good,” said Vlaikidis, whose coaching background includes time in his native Greece and Macedonia, and a valuable stint in the 1990s at Panathinaikos Athens under current Shimane Susanoo Magic coach Zeljko Pavlicevic.
“Finally, our target will be to play good defense,” the 46-year-old coach added.
Vlaikidis knows coaching the Big Bulls won’t be an easy task from the get-go. But he’s prepared to build a foundation for future success, stating the need to develop young players.
“We are totally a new team,” he said. “We try now to find the way to (have) confidence. Our target is to play in every game better and better. We will try to win every game, and in the end of the regular season we will see what we’ve done.”
Looking at the roster he has assembled for the Tohoku-based club, Vlaikidis was impressed with guard Makoto Sawaguchi’s scoring contributions in preseason action. The Morioka native, still only 19, showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie last season for the Akita Northern Happinets. And now, the coach hopes Sawaguchi can build off that experience to be a productive performer for his hometown club.
In setting up the team’s defense, Vlaikidis pointed out that guard Tasuku Namizato, a talented 24-year-old Okinawan, could play an important role.
Guard Yoshiaki Yamamoto, who turns 29 in December, was named team captain.
Why was Yamamoto, who’s making his bj-league debut this season, chosen for this leadership role?
“Everybody respects him and he has a strong personality,” Vlaikidis said. “It was a wish of all the players.”
Forward Hayato Kantake, a Fukuoka native, has a chance to be a key player on the squad as well.
“He is a good shooter and likes very much to run,” Vlaikidis said of Kantake. “He is also good in one-on-one (situations). He has a very good character and he’s a fighter.”
The Big Bulls roster also includes guards Keita Takada and Atsushi Nogami, forward Shinya Chiba, South Korean swingman Shin Jae Rok, forward Thomas Kennedy (University of Detroit Mercy) and post players Shawn Malloy (University of New Orleans) and Matthew Smith (Warner Southern, an NAIA school).
The team’s American players all have experience in overseas pro leagues. Character-wise, Vlaikidis believes they’ll put group goals ahead of individual agendas.
“The two preseason games showed us that — (and) I think all of our import players are team players,” he said.
After several months of planning and dozens of promotional appearances throughout the region, Vlaikidis and his charges are ready for the season’s start.
“I am waiting for starting day,” he concluded. “I am really excited, and I wish all teams good health and good luck.”