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Oketani era finished in Okinawa: sources

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

A major shift in the bj-league’s coaching ranks appears imminent.

Sources told The Japan Times on Thursday that two-time title-winning coach Dai Oketani of the Ryukyu Golden Kings will not return to the club next season. Instead, the sources said, Oketani wants to join the Kyoto Hannaryz as an assistant under bench boss Honoo Hamaguchi.

Oketani, 35, hails from Kyoto. He has been a head coach since the league’s inaugural season in 2005-06, stepping into the lead position with the Oita HeatDevils when the team’s original coach, ex-NBA big man Jawann Oldham, was fired after a 4-12 start. He coached Oita until 2008.

Hamaguchi, 42, led the Sendai 89ers from 2005 until the team’s 2010-11 campaign ended due to the Great East Japan Earthquake. He then guided the Hannaryz to their first Final Four appearance last month.

Oketani and Hamaguchi both served stints on former Arizona State men’s basketball coach Rob Evans’ staff.

The Golden Kings captured their first title in 2008-09 in Oketani’s first season at the helm, going 41-11 after a 10-34 record in the team’s first season. In the next three seasons, they’ve gone 33-19, 34-16 and 39-13, and reached the Final Four four times in total, including championship game appearances in 2010-11 (runnerup to the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix) before returning the favor by beating Hamamatsu on May 20 at Ariake Colosseum.

Attempts to reach Golden Kings president/general manager Tatsuro Kimura and Oketani by telephone were unsuccessful on Thursday.

“Two championships in four years about says it all,” a league insider said, reflecting on Oketani’s time in Okinawa. “Oketani kept his team focused on the important things, and was always humble in victory, gracious in defeat.

“Sounds like this may be the bj-league version of (ex-general manager) Jerry Krause wanting credit for Phil Jackson’s championships with the Bulls.”

In related news, the Chiba Jets and head coach Eric Gardow have severed ties, league insiders said Thursday.

The Jets went 18-34 as an expansion team in 2011-12. Gardow’s contract is for two seasons, but philosophical differences over how to build the team played a major role in Gardow’s yet-to-be-announced departure.

With Gardow seemingly out of the picture, according to sources, the Jets wanted to hire Oketani. Instead, they’ll begin searching for another Japanese coach.

“That’s hard to believe,” said a longtime bj-league player, reacting to the details. “They (the Jets) can’t afford Oketani.”

He added: “Why would (Oketani) leave unless Okinawa doesn’t want to bring him back?”

Gardow did not respond to questions sent via email on Thursday.

Taking stock: The bj-league’s rapid expansion — from six teams in 2005-06 to 21, including debutants in the Gunma Crane Thunders and Tokyo Cinq Reves, set to play in its eighth season this fall — has given dozens of Japanese and imports a chance to make a living as pro basketball players in this country.

That rapid expansion, though, has watered down the product, as the quality of actual games has often not kept pace with the growth. A growing number of native players in the league have marginal talent, and are unable to make any significant impact for their teams.

Sure, it will take time to level out. But first, say opponents of the way the league operates, the league needs to embrace stability and halt expansion, giving players, coaches and teams a chance to grow into their roles. In other words, mature and improve.

However, the league is poised to move in the opposite direction, using a gimmick to boost playing time for Japanese and cut costs at the same time.

As first reported in The Japan Times last month, the bj-league will impose a two-import rule for the first and third quarters in 2012-13, as opposed to the past two years’ model, which had this odd rule for the second quarter, with three imports per team allowed for the rest of the game. (No formal announcement has been made by the league; and the league did not respond to requests for comment on this significant change.)

This, essentially, will force coaches to juggle their normal duties with this increasingly bizarre game-within-the-game. No coach should be forced to deal with this concept, hoop purists will point out.

It’s a horrific idea, a longtime critic of league operations stated.

“Their rule for next season will spoil their league,” he said.

Clearly, some teams devised ways to exploit the two-import limit in the second quarter in the past two years, notably the Tokyo Apache with Bob Hill at the controls in 2010-11 and the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix and Ryukyu Golden Kings, who deftly rotated impact players into the game.

Sure, this is a classic, cost-cutting move, with the league also planning to institute a four-foreigner quota for teams in 2012-13. Will it dramatically affect fans’ interest in the games? That remains to be seen.

Evessa update: After Ryan Blackwell’s stint as Osaka Evessa head coach ended last week, the question instantly became this: Who will be the third coach in Evessa history?

A well-connected league insider dished out this insight the other day:

“They will bring in an European guy, a Serbian, who gets his players to work hard. That is what I know.”

Stay tuned.

Contract talk: Bench boss Matt Garrison received a one-year contract to guide the Niigata Albirex BB for a second season, it was announced earlier this week.

Garrison led Niigata to a 28-24 record and a playoff berth this past season.

The Saitama Broncos, meanwhile, have not officially decided if Natalie Nakase will be retained for the 2012-13 season. An announcement is expected by the end of the month.

New boss in Nagano: As expected, the Shinshu Brave Warriors have handed the reins to Takatoshi “Big Bashi” Ishibashi, who served as now-departed bench boss Motofumi Aoki’s assistant during the team’s inaugural season.
Shinshu went 18-34 in 2011-12.

Ishibashi, 43, has had short stints in charge for the Toyama Grouses and Shiga Lakestars after serving as an assistant coach for both clubs.

Aoki is the leading candidate to coach the Cinq Reves, according to league insiders.

* * *Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp