The Akita Northern Happinets’ second season begins Oct. 15 against the visiting Oita HeatDevils. New coach Kazuo Nakamura has talked about veteran leadership, including Kazuhiro Shoji and Makoto Hasegawa, laying the foundation for success this season.
Hasegawa, an Akita native who played for the Niigata Albirex BB for several seasons before joining the Happinets for their inaugural campaign in 2010-11, said the team is in the midst of a transition coming off an 18-32 season.
“The team’s changed a lot already,” Hasegawa told The Japan Times. “Our players’ mind-set has been changed a lot as well as our basketball style, although we have to see how the foreign players will be able to fit in. But what I can say for sure is that the team is not the same as last year’s and we are confident that we can put up an interesting game.”
Hasegawa, 40, is the elder statesman among the league’s players. A former JBL star and popular figure during his college and high school days, he is a key figure in the Akita front office, too, serving as team manager and using his deep connections to helping line up sponsors and strengthening the team’s booster club, as former Happinets coach Bob Pierce stated on many occasions last season.
Now, Hasegawa will play under the 70-year-old Nakamura, who guided the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to back-to-back championships before stepping down to assume bench-boss duties for his hometown team.
Nakamura demands that his players exert a lot of energy on the court — all-out effort, to be precise.
“Yeah, we play fast and hard defense,” Hasegawa said. “That is what we are looking for right now.”
Big man Stanley Ocitti and guard Michael Gardener both suited up for the Phoenix during the 2008-09 season, so they have experience with Nakamura’s system and know what it takes to succeed for the fiery leader.
There’s a level of comfort having two imports who have played in the bj-league before, according to Hasegawa, who added, “and with that respect we don’t have any worries.”
As for his own unique role on the team, Hasegawa described it this way: “I will be standing in between (coach and players). I have to always see the entire team. That is what I have to do.”
The Happinets, who already have one of the best fan bases in the 19-team bj-league, won’t be satisfied to simply earn one of the 10-team Eastern Conference’s six playoff berths. The team has loftier goals, and Hasegawa aims to be a productive player whenever he’s called upon to help the team.
“We are looking to make the Final Four, advancing through the early rounds,” he said. “And individually, I am 40, so I don’t think I have much opportunity to play fully, but I would like to avoid injuries as much as possible, and if I can do that, I think I can contribute to the team.”
Weekend schedule: The expansion Yokohama B-Corsairs play host to Hamamatsu on Saturday and Sunday, while the first-year Iwate Big Bulls face the Sendai 89ers in Morioka. The Niigata Albirex BB, now under former standout Matt Garrison, take on the expansion Shinshu Brave Warriors, who are led by Motofumi Aoki, the former Takamatsu Five Arrows and Tokyo Apache sideline supervisor.
There will be eight weekend series on Oct. 15-16, including the first-year Chiba Jets’ series against the host Phoenix, as the league gets into full swing.
Positive outlook: Shinshu guard Yosuke Saito, who played in the JBL2 last season, said enjoyment will be a key factor’s in his team’s pursuit of success this season.
“We would like to play (while) enjoying the game,” Saito said at the league’s Sept. 26 news conference in Tokyo, “and hopefully we can win as many as possible.”
Aoki led the Five Arrows to a championship runnerup spot in the team’s first season, 2006-07. So he has experience building a team from scratch.
Formidable challenge: Phoenix guard Kenya Tomori realizes all of the league’s teams want to deny the Eastern Conference powerhouse a third consecutive title. Thus, there will be pressure on Tomori and his teammates to maintain their level of sustained excellence for another season.
Tomori said, “We have achieved consecutive championships and I think everyone is going to challenge us. But we, the Phoenix, have always played as a challenger and it won’t change. (This season), we would like to show our Phoenix basketball under our new head coach, (Ryuji) Kawai.”
Keep an eye on . . . Golden Kings guard Narito Namizato: The Ryukyu newcomer was named to the Best Five team at the recently completed Asia Basketball Association’s Marco Polo Championships, a four-team tournament in Guangzhou, China.
The 22-year-old guard appears poised to be a breakout star this season. The 172-cm Okinawan played sparingly for the JBL’s Link Tochigi Brex over the past two seasons, and wants to position himself for future success — abroad.
In a recent interview, a Golden Kings official who requested anonymity said there are high hopes for Namizato to have a breakout season for Ryukyu. By doing so, Namizato has a chance to attract attention from other leagues, including in Europe and the United States.
The source mentioned former Shimane Susanoo Magic guard Takumi Ishizaki, who plays for the Japan national team, as an example. Ishizaki parlayed his success in 2010-11 for Shiamane into a spot for German club BV Chemnitz 99 this season.
“We hope he makes a strong impact with the Kings in this season and move to the (United) States. But first, he has to take this team to the championship,” the source said.
“Since he was benched most of the time in the last two seasons, he did not have good enough stats to show the NBA scouts,” the source added. “He is working very hard with us and hopefully his day will come sooner than everyone expects.”
Namizato will wear No. 37 this season for Ryukyu. And there’s an interesting story behind that number choice. As a high school player, he wore No. 14. His idol is Michael Jordan, who made No. 23 a popular choice for many players. And so, Namizato combined the two numbers. Or as the source put it: “He created No. 37 to chase his dream.”
Around the league: Standout guard Jermaine Dixon, who starred at the University of Pittsburgh, is returning to the Phoenix, The Japan Times has learned. Dixon, a notable star before the March 11 earthquake, left the team last spring, opting to spend time with his family in the United States. But he has now agreed to a deal to play for the Eastern Conference powerhouse again.
Dixon is scheduled to arrive in Japan on Monday, meaning he’ll miss the season-opening series against the B-Corsairs. …
In a recent interview, Shiga Lakestars coach Alan Westover said forwards Ray Nixon and Dionisio Gomez have impressed him in preseason workouts and games, noting that the two have been the team’s best all-around players.
“They both have great versatility, are good defenders and good rebounders.”
The team’s trademarks to date, the coach added, are “playing hard and sticking together.”
Looking ahead to the challenge of a 52-game season, here’s how Westover summed up his approach to the game: “The greatest challenge is always to be a complete team, and that comes with having a great understanding of our structure.”
After adding All-Star center Julius Ashby to the mix a few weeks ago, Westover’s team versatility and talent increased, giving him a knowledgeable anchor in the middle.
On offense, the Lakestars will need scoring punch from Yu Okada and Shinya Ogawa, the coach said. In addition, veteran guard Takamichi Fujiwara will be expected to provide defense, scoring and leadership off the bench.
New addition: Power forward Larry Turner has joined the Toyama Grouses, the Eastern Conference club has announced.
The 211-cm Turner is a well-traveled veteran. The 28-year-old’s career includes stops in the CBA, NBA Development League, Dominican Republic, Canada, Mexico and Venezuela.
“I have always wanted to play in Japan,” Turner said in a statement issued by the team. “I have always heard how competitive and enjoyable the bj-league is, and . . . I look forward to competing and contributing to the team’s success.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
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