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Nash hungry to build off Grouses’ success last season

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Bob Nash has been around the game long enough to know that he doesn’t need to go out of his way to complicate things.

His basic approach is this: Each day provides another opportunity to take one small step in the right direction.

As the Toyama Grouses’ new coach, Nash, the Saitama Broncos’ bench boss in 2010-11, has an opportunity to lead the Eastern Conference club to its first winning season. Toyama joined the bj-league in 2006 and has reached postseason play in the past two seasons, but never finished above .500.

In a phone conversation Monday, the 61-year-old Nash admitted that “everybody wants to make the playoffs and make it to the championship. But I tell them, ‘We just have to win the game in front of us. I don’t want to get us too far ahead. Just win the game in front of you and add ‘em up, and in the end see if it’s good enough.’ “

The Grouses, coming off a 25-27 season under Kazuaki Shimoji, who stepped down after the season due to health issues, open their seventh season on Sunday against the visiting Gunma Crane Thunders, an expansion team.

Other opening weekend series, all starting Saturday, are Niigata vs. Iwate, Hamamatsu vs. Sendai and Kyoto vs. Ryukyu.

Without hesitation, Nash said he admires the job Shimoji did in turning the Grouses into a high-energy, competitive squad.

“I thought he was an excellent coach and did a good job, and the team made the playoffs last year under his tutelage,” Nash said. “It’s unfortunate for him that his illness prevented him from continuing to coach.”

After a season away from coaching — Nash relaxed at his home in Hawaii and helped make preparations for his daughter Erika’s wedding — the No.9 overall pick (Detroit Pistons) in the 1972 NBA Draft and longtime University of Hawaii basketball assistant-turned head coach is eager to build a consistent winner in Toyama.

“What matters most is that the people you bring on board are on the same page,” he said, “and just try to build a chemistry where everybody gets along and where everybody’s pulling for the same goal.

“What we did in Saitama, I enjoyed that, but this is a whole brand new situation.”

Nash insists defense is the No.1 priority for his team, but remains flexible about how he’ll concoct the game plan.

“I’m changing with what we have here. I think we have a good nucleus here,” said Nash, who starred for Hawaii’s “Fabulous Five” teams in the early 1970s.

That nucleus features returning standouts Takeshi Mito, a steady point guard, 2011-12 Best Five shooting guard Masashi Joho and rock-solid forward Ira Brown.

Nash called them the team’s Big Three and noted that in the modern game a team’s top-three combination — he cited the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers as prime examples — is a key ingredient for success.

Now 30, Joho, one of the elite Japanese players in league history, has entered his prime and is expected to play a bigger leadership role for the younger Grouses.

“He’s gotten better as a player,” Nash observed. “It’s not about the physical, it’s about the mental. He sees things at a whole different speed now. . . .

“He’s thinking the game more. The maturity that he brings to the team now is helping his teammates. . . . Now it is about 20, 30 points two nights in a row. That’s the more important thing for us now, the back-to-back consistency.”

While other teams will rely on import guards to play key roles, Nash believes Mito and Joho as starters will hold their own against other teams.

“Not to take anything away from (Niigata Albirex BB star) Nile Murry or anyone else in the league, but I think our Japanese guys are good and we’ll compete with anyone,” Nash said. “They are going to have to guard our players; it’s going to work both ways.”

Veteran forward Ryuichi Horikawa has been chosen as the team’s captain.

With title-winning coaches in Akita’s Kazuo Nakamura and Iwate’s Dai Oketani — two apiece; Oketani guided Ryukyu to a championship last season — in the Eastern Conference — the battle to represent the East in the Final Four will be a grand challenge, Nash said.

“It speaks well for those teams that have those coaches,” he said. “I think they are going to be teams that you have to reckon with. And certainly (Sendai’s) Bob Pierce has been in this league a long time. He’s put together a good team this year. Matt Garrison, in Niigata, built a strong program there.”

Despite losing two-time champion Hamamatsu, Nakamura’s old team, to the West this season, “I think the East is getting and better,” Nash commented.

“We don’t have a team that has won a championship, but teams that are hungry to win a championship.”

To contend for a championship, the Grouses will also need steady production from a trio of new frontcourt players: 203-cm Jeremy Jacob (Oregon product), 205-cm Malcolm White (LSU) and 209-cm Angel Garcia (University of Memphis).

“Jacobs and Garcia are both multipositional-type players,” Nash said. “That was what we are trying to put together. Malcolm has a lot of athleticism, plays defense and rebounds and is a pretty good scorer on the blocks at times, but he’s more of a defensive rebounding, shot-blocker type player.”

Nakase update: Natalie Nakase, the first female head coach in bj-league history, recently began working as a video production intern for the Los Angeles Clippers.

A former UCLA women’s basketball captain, Nakase told The Japan Times she’s excited about this new opportunity with the NBA club.

“It’s been a dream job and I am learning so much about the NBA every day,” said Nakase, who led the Saitama Broncos from late November until the end of a rocky 2011-12 campaign. “We will be helping the coaching staff scout teams and prepare them for their opponents. I’m extremely excited for this season.”

Where’s Planells?: Hernando Planells, the well-traveled bench boss and first head coach in Ryukyu Golden Kings history, was named the Duke women’s basketball team’s director of relations, it was announced by the Atlantic Coast Conference school on Tuesday.

“It is with great excitement that we introduce Hernando to the Duke family,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said in a school-issued statement. “He is extraordinary to his commitment and work ethic. He has been around the game for a long time and he has interesting experience whether it is with the NBA Developmental League or if it is training individuals personally. He brings great enthusiasm, the ability to recruit and also the ability to boost our summer camp enrollment as well. I have known him through family and professionally. We are very excited that he has decided to join us at Duke.”

Planells served as an assistant coach for the D-League’s Maine Red Claws in 2010-11. His diverse professional background includes stints as an NBA scout, personal trainer, basketball-scene choreographer for movies and commercials and coaching gigs at high school, college and pro levels. And he’s still only 35 — for another month.

At Duke, Planells will handle a number of duties, including recruiting work, scout team coordinating and game-day operations.

“I am extremely excited,” Planells said about his new job. “The opportunity to work for Coach P and to be at Duke is something you don’t get a chance to do that very often. To be able to work with her, the rest of the coaching staff, learn new things and to be a part of a championship program is something I am ready to get started.”

Keeping busy: Shimane Susanoo Magic coach Zeljko Pavlicevic, the only Western Conference sideline supervisor entering his third season at the helm of his team, has written an article for a Spanish website, solobasket.com, about the late Croatian basketball star Drazen Petrovic. Pavlicevic was Petrovic’s coach for the 1986 Euroleague-winning Cibona team. Pavlicevic shares his recollections of the dynamic talent, who died at age 28 in an automobile accident on June 7, 1993. Petrovic played for the Portland Trail Blazers and New Jersey Nets after a standout European career. In May, Pavlicevic, who is fluent in Spanish, also penned a story for the website on former NBA star Toni Kukoc.

Around the league: Former Shinshu Brave Warriors big man Tyler Hughes, a 213-cm Kansas State product, has joined the Greek club Panelefsiniakos, according to published reports. His teammates include guard Nik Raivio, younger brother of ex-Shinshu backcourt dynamo Derek Raivio, who’s now playing in the Belgian League. Guard Lee Cummard, who suited up for the Kyoto Hannaryz last season, has joined the Fos Ouest Provence Basket in France’s ProB circuit. . . .

Former Chiba Jets guard Maurice Hargrow, who averaged 21.6 points per game last season, is poised to join the Akita Northern Happinets in the coming days, a basketball insider told The Japan Times.

Only eight of 21 teams are in action this weekend, which means Oct. 13-14, when there will be 18 games, is the real opening weekend for the 2012-13 bj-league season. . . . Looking at the Tokyo Cinq Reves’ schedule and seeing that the expansion team is using 10 home venues this season, one source said the team will be “on a barnstorming tour the entire season.”

Fighting spirit: Oketani understands what it takes to be a champion. After all, he guided the Ryukyu Golden Kings to titles in the 2008-09 and 2011-12 seasons.

Now, he’s using those experiences as tone-setters for the Big Bulls.

“Our practice is too competitive sometimes,” Oketani wrote in a message posted on Facebook earlier this week. “Everyone gets so tired physically and mentally, but I remember that my two championship teams in practice were so competitive. I should realize that we need to execute everything with this competitiveness.”

Sport court vs. wood: Traditionally, and almost everywhere the game is played besides concrete courts in neighborhood courts, basketball is contested on wood floors. The bj-league is the exception to the rule, where the overwhelming majority of the games have always been played on sport court, a synthetic surface disliked by the majority of the players. There have, though, been occasions where wood courts are used.

This preseason, that number has been increasing, and it’s a welcome development around the bj-league.

“I don’t know how widespread it will be,” one league insider said Tuesday, “but I think you’ll see more teams moving way from sport court and playing on wood with decals applied.”

Sure, the league welcomes the sponsors’ money that comes from sport court companies, but is it practical and economical in the long run for the league to stick with non-wood courts?

“In the past, preseason games helped players adjust to playing on sport court. Also, sport court gets worn and needs to be replaced. So just a guess, (but) maybe five, six teams this season may use wood courts for some games,” the source said.

Can team presidents and GMs be convinced they should get rid of sport court floors?

“I suspect they are all going to vote with their wallets,” the insider said, “by not replacing old courts or buying new ones.”

Insight on Blackwell’s departure: One veteran coach weighed in on the Osaka Evessa’s decision to not renew Ryan Blackwell’s contract after last season, linking it directly to his close friendship with two-time MVP Lynn Washington, who was arrested in a drug case but all charges were later dropped.

“From the outside, it would seem that based on his record alone (35-17 last season, 67-35 in two seasons), Coach Blackwell should have returned for another season,” the coach said. “But cases like this are often decided on internal issues, relations between coach and players, or coach and management, and only those people can speak about what was going on behind the scenes.

“Another, quite probable scenario, is that if sponsors were dissatisfied, either with Ryan as a coach, or with his close association with Lynn, they could have had a strong influence on the decision to let him go. As many entertainers, athletes, and movie stars find out, image is everything. Sponsors, boosters, and advertisers vote with their money. If they don’t want to be associated with a team, player, or coach, changes have to be made. Whatever Lynn’s legal status was is mostly irrelevant, because the damage done to his reputation, and that of Evessa and the bj-league was very real.”

He added: “Many young coaches who go from being a player to becoming a coach face the same dilemma, can you — or should you? — maintain the same relationships with players who just months before were your teammates? How true or not, I do not know, but the word was that Ryan and Lynn were still hanging out together at restaurants, bars, clubs, wherever it was that they hung out. While it didn’t seem to be a problem when things were going well, it appeared to be a very big issue after Lynn was arrested, and seems to have been a factor in the team’s decision to let Ryan go. Only the people involved could tell you whether any of that actually came into play, but that was a topic of conversation that was going around the league.”

The last word, part I: “We do the same things every day. We have a set routine we do. We are not going to change that. We just do what we do. And hopefully it’ll be good enough. If not, we’ll make adjustments. We know what we want to do and how we want to play on offense and defense. The goal is to go out there and play at both ends of the floor, work on being consistent at both ends of the floor. If we are able to do that, I think we are able to play with just about anyone.” — Nash, sizing up his team’s outlook entering the opening week series against Gunma.

The last word, part II: “I like the five Japanese players we have, good rotation we have with them, interchangeable parts. And so we don’t have any guys that are not going to help us. Each one of those guys is going to help us: shooting, passing, running the offense,” Nash said of Joho, Mito, Horikawa, Tatsunori Fujie and Mitsuhiro Kamezaki.

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