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Gunma fires Hayashi, names Blackwell new coach

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The winless Gunma Crane Thunders, who have been handed 35-, 38- and 43-point losses, fired original coach Tadashi Hayashi and named Ryan Blackwell his successor, the Eastern Conference squad announced Thursday.

Gunma (0-8) plays host to the Yokohama B-Corsairs (2-2) this weekend.

Blackwell was dismissed as the Osaka Evessa bench boss after last season, his second at the helm. Osaka went 67-35 in his two seasons in charge, reaching the playoffs twice and the Final Four in 2010-11.

The former Syracuse University forward previously played for the Sendai 89ers (2006-08) and Osaka (2008-10). He was not brought back by Evessa management.

Osaka, now 0-4 and already on its second coach (Takao Furuya) this season, chose to view Blackwell’s friendship with two-time MVP Lynn Washington as the reason to make changes after the three-time champion’s seventh consecutive winning season.
Washington was arrested in connection with a package of marijuana being shipped to Japan last season, but he was exonerated of all charges. He was then forced to retire by the team.

Blackwell was unavailable for comment.

Hayashi, 50, had not worked in the bj-league until being hired to guide the new team.

Hayashi became the second fired coach this season after Zoran Kreckovic was removed as Osaka coach following the team’s 0-4 start.

Will Blackwell be able to bring in ex-Evessa standouts, such as Washington, Bobby St. Preux and Mike Bell, to Gunma as the Crane Thunders look to establish a more competitive team?

“Who knows what they will do,” a league insider said on Thursday afternoon. “I had no idea they were going to change coaches so soon although the coach they had was desperately out of his league.

“Not sure they have any money for a big hire, but Ryan may want someone with more experience,” he added.

Blackwell becomes the third foreign coach to lead more than one bj-league club, joining John Neumann (Rizing Fukuoka, Takamatsu Five Arrows) and Bob Pierce (Shiga Lakestars, Akita Northern Happinets, Sendai 89ers)

Success in Iwate: The Iwate Big Bulls’ success in the first month of the 2012-13 bj-league season shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve paid attention to the history of what works in the fledgling circuit.

Adding a veteran coach and players with proven success in this league are a winning formula.

Exhibit A: Iwate is 8-0 under two-time, title-winning coach Dai Oketani, who will always remain a hero in Okinawa for bringing the thrill of victory to the Ryukyu Golden Kings during four outstanding seasons.

Iwate’s balanced scoring, clutch shooting and lock-down defense have been a formula for triumph after triumph as the team forged ahead to the top of the 11-team Eastern Conference standings.

Longtime Ryukyu assistant coach Keith Richardson spoke about Oketani’s stellar leadership during an exclusive interview with The Japan Times in May 2011, praising his then-boss.

“The major part of Coach Oketani’s success has been his players believe in him, his system and he is a player’s coach” Richardson said at the time. “He can be tough when he needs to be and at times be that person who can sit down with his players and hear their side of ideas.

“I would say the most important thing is that he has earned the respect of his players and his coaching staff and he gives the same back.”

Center Dillion Sneed, a key offseason acquisition, leads the Big Bulls in scoring (18.6 points per game), followed by Reggie Okosa’s 13.5 ppg, Kenichi Takahashi’s 13.1, Lawrence “Trend” Blackledge’s 12.3, Carlos Dixon’s 9.9 and Masato Tsukino’s 9.8.

All six played for other teams last season; Sneed at Ryukyu, Okosa for the same team before moving on the Korean Basketball League, Takahashi finishing a six-year stint with the Sendai 89ers, Blackledge splitting time with the Evessa and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, Dixon starring for the Rizing Fukuoka (and the previous season with Ryukyu) and Tsukino wrapping up his second year with the Miyazaki Shining Suns.

In addition, fellow newcomer Naoto Nakamura, a 6.5 ppg scorer, moved to Iwate after playing for Kyoto, while guard Haruyuki Ishibashi, part of three Osaka championship teams, also left the Hannaryz in the offseason.

Takahashi struggled with injuries and had limited productivity last season, but had a banner month in October, scoring 15 or more points in eight games. He is the bj-league’s recipient of the October MVP award.

In the season’s first month, Takahashi drained 11 of 23 3-pointers (47.8 percent), helping the team’s guards stretch the defense and open up space on the inside for Sneed and the other frontcourt players. He has been a solid player in the bj-league since 2006, and in 2008-09, for instance, he led the 89ers with 197 assists for a team that had six player top the century mark.

“A lot of times in this league there’s major turnover with players after the season, so it takes time for teams to jell,” Sneed, an East Tennessee State product, said in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times. “But with our team we signed all foreign players who pretty much were teammates before in other countries as well as in Japan, and we also ran Dai’s (triangle) offense already and the familiarity with each other made it an easier adjustment.”

Sneed refuses to be complacent, though, noting there are still 44 regular-season games remaining for the Big Bulls. The Iwate Big Bulls’ success in the first month of the 2012-13 bj-league season shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve paid attention to the history of what works in the fledgling circuit.

“Fifty-two games is a long season,” he said. “Anything can happen. We’re only eight games into the season and the only thing we’ve accomplished so far is just a few wins. … Our goal is just to take it one week at a time, game by game and any storm that may come in these 52 games, just whether it and stay confident and focused on our goal.”

Having a veteran-dominated squad is big benefit for Iwate when it comes to understanding the peaks and valleys of a season, said Sneed.

“I think veteran newcomers are good to have, but all of the newcomers we have are not only veterans but are also winners, talented and tough players,” Sneed said. “You need players who know how to win and are willing to do whatever it takes to win. The players we brought here just brought that winning attitude and toughness and it has worn off and everybody here believes in each other ’cause we are all proven winners, so it’s easier to buy into a goal that we’ve all accomplished at some point in our careers.”

Knowing that the team will face improved competition in the weeks and months to come, Sneed pointed out that the lanky 207-cm Blackledge, who leads the league with 5.0 blocks per game, is the catalyst of the team’s defense. “I always think a team can improve on defense,” Sneed said. “Trend Blackledge to me is the best defensive player in the league and he covers a lot of mistakes we make, but as we get better and better on defense as a team, it will just make us a much better team and get us closer to our goals.”

Iwate, a 2011-12 expansion team, showed flashes of becoming a good team last season under coaches Vlasios Vlaikidis and Shinji Tomiyama while posting a 19-33 record. But there were greater expectations once Oketani arrived.

“I don’t know what went on last year with the team here but I do know as a coach nothing about Coach Dai’s approach has changed from when I was in Okinawa with him the last two seasons,” Sneed revealed. “He still demands you play hard and unselfish on the court, he’s still a players’ coach, treats all his players with respect and is a positive person, as players and grown men we respond well to his style of coaching.

How important was the front office’s pursuit of veteran winners been?

“Winning is a culture and Coach Dai came to this team with a winning track record — four straight Final Fours, three championship game appearances and two championships,” Sneed noted. “No other coach in this league can boast those numbers in this league. The pursuit and signing of Coach Dai is what led to all of us foreigners signing here.

“When my contract with Okinawa wasn’t renewed and they released my rights, I had other teams in other countries I could have went to, but I know Coach Dai well and he really wanted me here and once I signed with Iwate I talked to the other two guys who where my ex-teammates and I talked to Blackledge, whom I was cool with, and we made it happen.”

Rough start: The Kyoto Hannaryz, coming off their first Final Four season, have dropped all six games, including four home contests.

Newcomers David Palmer, Gyno Pomare and Marcus Cousin played elsewhere last season, as did Yu Okada. The team’s lone returning import, Jermaine Boyette, has also had to get adjusted to playing for a squad that lost veteran “glue guys” Taizo Kawabe and Nakamura, the former of whom now plays for the Osaka Evessa. Smart veteran big men Babacar Camara, Rick Rickert, a former Minnesota Timberwolves draft pick, and Lance Allred, a former Cleveland Cavaliers player, and floor leader Lee Cummard were not brought back despite helping the team advance one game shy of a shot at the title.

The team’s struggles, however, come as no surprise to Allred, who’s now playing in the Mexican League.

The Hannaryz front office had one goal in mind after reaching the Promised Land — change for change’s sake, according to Allred.

“The fact that Kyoto didn’t even talk to Rick, Lee or Babacar this summer is shocking to me,” Allred told The Japan Times. “Now if they had talked to Rick and Lee and couldn’t come to an agreement on price, that is one thing. But they didn’t even talk to them at all.

“To get to the Final Four and return only one import is so perplexing. But I guess with Japan’s ‘Sensei culture,’ everyone believed we got as far as we did because of Honoo and his ‘leadership.’ (NBA coaching legend) Phil Jackson’s triangle offense worked, because he had the best players to run it. Take out the best players that he had to work with, (Michael) Jordan, (Scottie) Pippen, Shaq (O’Neal), Kobe (Bryant), (Lamar) Odom, (Pau) Gasol, and his triangle offense fades away. Honoo won, because he had a talented group of players, who were humble enough to keep quiet, put up with his control obsession and just focus on winning.

“Obviously, apparent to all at this point, we got as far as we did, because the players did it. At the end of the day, it is the players who have to perform, who have to battle on the frontlines, so to speak. The coach is never on the front lines. At times, we won despite Honoo.”

How so?

“He had to control so many thing, for example, many times throughout the games he would order us to not shoot until we had made at least five passes. So, it literally felt like we were playing with one hand tied behind our backs, passing up great initial shots, because we were not allowed to shoot it. While the other team and their players are allowed to play free and easy and have the green light to shoot whenever they want,” Allred said. “And we still got as far as we did, despite those restrictions.

“We got as far as we did, because we had a great chemistry, great teammates, that obviously Kyoto took for granted, because they believed it was all about Honoo. It wasn’t.

“This isn’t college, where we need a coach to discipline and mold us anymore. We are professionals and for a brief moment, Kyoto had an amazing core of guys who cared more about winning than all else. And Kyoto thought that was easily replaceable.”

Responding to Allred’s thought-provoking insights above, one longtime hoop insider dished out the following comments: “The ‘this isn’t college’ comment is the same one that has been made about coach (Shuji) Ono at Hitachi, and started when he was at Toyota. Honoo is a disciple of Coach Ono from Aichi Gakusen University. Not surprising to hear the same thing about him. “Unlike the U.S., coaches are rarely critiqued for things like this, to the great detriment of Japanese basketball.”

Weekly honor: Niigata Albirex BB shooting guard Kimitake Sato, who dons No. 23 like one of his hoop idols, Michael Jordan, received the Lawson Ponta MVP accolade after a pair of strong games against the visiting Yokohama B-Corsairs last weekend.

Sato had 15- and 17-point performances against the B-Corsairs as Niigata earned a series sweep and improved to 3-3. The veteran standout shot 12-for-22 from the field against Yokohama and sank all four of his free-throw attempts.

New addition: As first reported in The Japan Times on Oct. 24, Rickert has reached a deal to play for the winless Osaka Evessa. Osaka’s next game is Nov. 10 against the Oita HeatDevils.

Time away: Zora Pavlicevic, mother of the Shimane head coach Zeljko Pavlicevic, passed away at age 82 on Oct. 28 in Zagreb. He has returned home to Croatia for the funeral, and the timetable for him to return to the team is unknown at this time, though he’s expected to gone for about a week. He left Japan on Oct. 29.

Upcoming games: The weekend docket includes the following nine series, all of which start on Saturday: Akita vs. Tokyo, Toyama vs. Iwate, Shinshu vs. Niigata, Gunma vs. Yokohama, Saitama vs. Chiba, Hamamatsu vs. Miyazaki, Shiga vs. Oita, Shimane vs. Kyoto and Fukuoka vs. Takamatsu.

Missed the cut: Former Toyama Grouses forward Devin Searcy, who played in Japan last season, was released by the Philadelphia 76ers over the weekend.

The University of Dayton product suited up for the Sixers in a pair of exhibition contests, playing a total of nine minutes. He had four points and four rebounds.

On the move: The Cinq Reves have added forward Dennis Carr, a 201-cm Embry Riddle University product, it was announced Thursday. The 31-year-old played for the Taiwan Mobile Leopards in 2011-12, averaging 14.6 points in five games, according to asia-basket.com. … High-scoring swingman Ricky Woods, a Southeastern Louisiana alum, has joined Miyazaki. Woods played for Akita last season and previously suited up for Oita. His career has also included stops in Mexico, Israel and Spain. Woods averaged 20.6 ppg for Akita. He scored a then-league record 52 points on Feb. 28, 2010, for the HeatdDevils against the Tokyo Apache.

The last word: “Luke (Zeller) was a great teammate. It was his first year out of Notre Dame and he was extremely home sick and would talk about Hope (his wife) all the time. He had a solid work ethic and hated making mistakes. Although he had a slow start in the bj-league he never gave up and worked hard constantly. We also keep in touch often because of our brothers and agent and now he’s in the same situation as his first-round draft pick brother (Tyler of the Cleveland Cavaliers).” — former Shiga Lakestars and Rizing Fukuoka forward Gary Hamilton reflects on his time as Zeller’s teammate.

(Luke Zeller, the subject of this week’s Hoop Scoop column, now plays for the Phoenix Suns and Hamilton’s younger brother, Jordan, is a Denver Nuggets guard/forward.)

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