Seven seasons are in the record books now, and the only numbers that truly resonate are championships.
The Osaka Evessa still have the most, with a remarkable three-peat, starting in 2005-06. They are joined in that elite circle by two bj-league franchises with sustained excellence and a pair of crowns each — the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix and the Ryukyu Golden Kings.
Sunday’s crowning achievement was a year in the making for the Golden Kings, who ended the Eastern Conference heavyweight’s two-year reign by ascending to the throne after a mini-drought. As a second-year franchise, the Kings picked up their first championship by topping the Tokyo Apache in the title match after dethroning the Evessa in the Western Conference final in May 2009.
Understand this: The Golden Kings are a model franchise. Player development, marketing, coaching and booster club membership are all aspects of Ryukyu’s daily operations that other teams can learn from.
Like San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich molding his team around Tim Duncan, as Ian Thomsen noted in a recent SI.com story, the Kings have wisely built their team around Jeff Newton and Anthony McHenry, whose skills perfectly complement each other.
Newton, the peerless post player on five title teams, doesn’t demand the ball or a certain number of shots per game; instead, he demands effort and holds his teammates accountable when their level of play slips.
Newton’s former Evessa teammate David Palmer, the only other player in league history with five championship game appearances, also embodies the team’s unselfish spirit.
Minutes after McHenry picked up the playoff MVP award on Sunday, Palmer was surrounded by cameras and microphones. With a big smile on his face, he told reporters: “I’m just so happy. … For McHenry to have (earned) this award, it feels wonderful.”
No matter how many points the Golden Kings have scored, Newton always talks about defense and rebounding as the things his team must never stop focusing on.
Sunday night, for example, the former Indiana University standout talked about the significance of winning the battle on the boards (he hauled in a game-high 19 of Ryukyu’s 54 rebounds; Hamamatsu had 41).
“I’ve just got a feel for the ball,” the 31-year-old Newton said. “I go and get it.”
That’s the foundation of Ryukyu’s success. And it starts with a selfless player who always seems to make the right play.
Case in point: After Newton’s 40-point, 30-rebound game against the Sendai 89ers in November 2008, assistant coach Keith Richardson summed up the feat this way: “When they announced 40 and 30, I could not believe it. … But when you know Jeff Newton the way we do and his work ethic and his ‘never-give up’ attitude it is not too hard to believe that he could get those kind of numbers for one game. It was definitely special to witness this record-setting performance and to get the win, which I am sure means more to Jeff than the numbers actually do. Jeff is a team player, this I know, and big numbers in a win are just icing on the cake for him.”
And then there’s this: Oketani knows how to use his bench, trusting his players and giving major minutes to the youngest duo on either team — 22-year-old guards Narito Namizato and Morihisa Yamauchi, both of whom made major contributions in the Final Four, combining for 41 total points in victories over the Kyoto Hannaryz and the Phoenix.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the team’s supporting cast has players that excel in different areas. There’s brute force center Dillion Sneed, a forceful presence at 202-cm and 126 kg in the low post. There’s fellow post player Dzaflo Larkai, whose footwork and repertoire of moves around the basket can sometimes remind one of the way Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon operated against an array of defensive schemes. There’s Palmer, the league’s premier perimeter marksman, who came off the bench and thrived in a reserve role. There’s the savvy, underrated on-court presence of Tsubasa Yonamine, who year after year racks up impressive assist-to-turnover numbers. Since 2006, Yonamine has 1,146 assists and 360 turnovers in 279 regular-season games.
“He’s a true leader,” Palmer said of Yonamine in May 2011. “I don’t think his true value can be measured by on-court statistics. He’s a quality leader.”
There’s Yasufumi Takushi, who plays a few minutes a game and does his damage from 3-point range (46 3s in 2011-12). And then there’s Naoto Kosuge, a solid player for five seasons with the Niigata Albirex BB before joining the Kings last season. His 17-point outing on Sunday, with 3 of 4 3-point shots flying through the net, was a bold reminder of his all-around skills in this league. Several seasons ago, then-Tokyo coach Joe Bryant spoke passionately about Kosuge’s rare combination of size (187 cm) and shooting ability that made Kosuge one of the best pure athletes among the league’s Japanese players (and Bryant should know about pure athletes; after all, his son, Kobe, happens to be one of the greatest NBA players of all time).
It took Kosuge seven seasons to win a championship, but the victory was sweet and a well-earned tribute to a player who does his job the right way.
“This is my eighth pro season, seventh in the bj-league, and I’ve finally grabbed a championship,” Kosuge told reporters. “I’d been away from any championship since I was in college, so I’m so excited about this.”
Oketani stepped into the spotlight as head coach while still in his late 20s for the Oita HeatDevils after ex-NBA center Jawann Oldham, the team’s bench boss, was fired by the Kyushu club in the league’s inaugural season. From that point on, the confident leader has proven he has what it takes to be an effective sideline supervisor in this league.
“Coach Dai is the heart of the team,” Richardson told me in a 2008 interview, months before the team’s first championship. “We all function around him as one. His knowledge of basketball is just phenomenal. He is always thinking ahead of the other teams and makes adjustments to the game very fast.”
When Oketani took over in Okinawa, the Kings were coming off a 10-34 inaugural season. Winning become the norm from that point on.
For the first championship, we climbed up to the (top) from the bottom of the standings,” Oketani recalled Sunday night with the championship trophy beside him in the interview room. “So nobody thought of us seriously. And when we did win, the championship and other teams began marking us all the time. They tried to adjust to our offense and defense. We still managed to win games. That’s because our players really grew up. This (title) is certainly a different one and valuable one as we won while being targeted by other teams.”
It was a joy to see the Golden Kings fans, arguably the best in the league, being saluted by McHenry after the title game had concluded on Sunday. It was his way of reminding them that their support is critical to the team’s success. McHenry raised his hands and held up his MVP plaque for them, doing so behind the team bench, on the opposite side of the court and also along the baseline. Three humble gestures.
Throughout the championship game — and you can’t discount their brilliance during their 39-win regular season — the Golden Kings never settled for mediocrity.
“They came ready to play,” Hamamatsu guard Jermaine Dixon observed. “They were the best team in the league this year, and they definitely played like it tonight in the championship.”
While Newton’s five titles may be the league’s most jaw-dropping accomplishment and one that fires up his younger, impressionable teammates, McHenry’s energy is the driving force of the team’s high-octane attack at both ends of the floor.
Listen to Dixon’s description of McHenry’s playoff MVP-clinching game (25 points, three blocks, two steals):
“He was great. He got out in transition. He got easy baskets. He was making plays for his teammates, playing great D, whether blocking shots or getting rebounds, he was definitely doing everything out there.”
Newton cemented his status as a legend in this league after putting 50 points on the board in the Western Conference final to lead Ryukyu past Osaka in 2009. Since then, he’s battled injuries but made big plays time and again when his team needed them most.
He’s a “smart defender, great rebounder, very unselfish,” Richardson told me last season.
One fan told this newspaper: “Many people only think about offense, but he (Newton) also had great defensive effort. Great box-out player, too.”
Another fervent supporter said, “He can play both as a forward or a center. There are many players who have a size advantage, but he still keeps his toughness against them.”
Two generations of standouts, nearly 10 years apart in age — Newton and Namizato — represent the wide range of skill sets on Ryukyu’s 2011-12 champions roster. The former is the winningest player in league history, the latter has taken his first big step as a pro player by playing a major role (11.0 points per game and a team-best 217 assists and 63 steals) for the Kings this season.
Namizato has lofty ambitions: to play in the NBA. His speed, quick handle, court vision and daring dashes in the lane have raised his stock, though it’s too early to expect him to be in the world’s supreme league at the start of the 2012-13 season. That shouldn’t stop him from pursuing his dreams, though.
To be the best, one must compete — and excel — against the best.
That’s a lesson that has served the Ryukyu Golden Kings well over the past four stellar seasons.