“I remember when I was in college, people told me I couldn’t play in the NBA. There’s always somebody saying you can’t do it, and those people have to be ignored.”
— Bill Cartwright, an NBA center from 1979-95
He played college ball at the University of San Francisco, where Bill Russell, the winningest player in NBA history first rose to stardom.
He began his pro career under legendary New York Knicks coach Red Holzman, whose two title-winning Knicks teams were praised universally for their team-first approach to the game.
And later in his career he was an inside presence, a glue guy, for the first Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls dynasty.
Meet Bill Cartwright, the Osaka Evessa’s new coach. The bj-league team announced the hire on Monday afternoon.
Cartwright, 55, replaces short-lived bench boss Takao Furuya, who now becomes the Evessa assistant coach. A league insider said he’ll be with the club at least through the end of next season.
He is the second former NBA head coach — he led the Bulls for 151 games (51-100 record) from 2001-03 — to be put in charge of a bj-league team after former Tokyo Apache bench boss Bob Hill, who ran the now-defunct team during the 2010-11 campaign.
The 216-cm Cartwright arrived in Japan with a giant task: to transform the once-mighty Evessa, the bj-league’s first dynasty, a three-time champion under original coach Kensaku Tennichi and six-time Final Four participant, into a respectable team again.
He is the team’s fourth head coach in eight months, taking over a team that’s 5-19 and in ninth place in the 10-team Western Conference.
The Evessa have never finished below second place in any of their previous seven seasons, all of which featured two-time league MVP and league legend Lynn Washington, the quintessential fiery leader and macho forward, and heart and soul of the Kansai franchise until his well-documented departure last April.
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Furuya, who became the general manager following a disastrous three-game preseason debacle, was 5-14 at the helm. The new-look Evessa, won three of their past five games before the All-Star break. They play host to the Miyazaki Shining Suns this weekend.
Ryan Blackwell, who guided the Evessa to a 67-35 record in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons and a pair of playoff appearances, was not retained following last season. He took over as the expansion Gunma Crane Thunders’ new bench boss on Nov. 1.
Blackwell’s Osaka replacement, Serbian mentor Zoran Kreckovic, was shown the door after the team’s 0-4 start, but since then the squad has added imports Rick Rickert, Mike Bell and Dwayne Lathan. All-Star forward Nathan Walkup is the lone foreigner on the squad who was listed on the opening day roster.
Cartwright is the tallest coach in bj-league history, climbing to the top of the height chart over 213-cm Jawann Oldham, who led the Oita HeatDevils for the first 16 games in the league’s inaugural 2005-06 season.
In his NBA career, Cartwright appeared in 963 regular-season games, averaging 13.2 points and 6.3 rebounds. He had averages of 8.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in 124 playoff games.
In addition to this three championship rings as a Bulls player, Cartwright served on Jackson’s coaching staff as an assistant on the final two seasons of Jordan’s back-to-back-to-back titles (1996-97 and 1997-98, and remained an assistant during the Bulls transition from Jackson to Tim Floyd, staying in that role until Floyd was fired after a 4-23 start in the 2001-02 season.
Those young Bulls, minus the Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman core of championships past, closed out the season 17-38 with Cartwright in charge.
“He knows the game, very good communicator and he’s going to bring championship experience,” Trent Tucker, Cartwright’s former Knicks and Bulls teammate, told The Japan Times on Monday.
Cartwright lasted as the Bulls coach until 14 games into the 2003-04 season, when he was let go after a 4-10 start. He worked as a New Jersey Nets assistant from 2004-08 under Lawrence Frank, and held that same role for the Phoenix Suns under Alvin Gentry from 2008-12.
Cartwright, an avid guitar player and jazz enthusiast, holds a master’s degree in organizational development and human resources from USF. He also absorbed a lot of life lessons from Jackson, the Zen Master with 11 championship rings as a head coach.
“What you learn from Phil is that there are other things besides basketball to occupy your mind, whether it’s simple things like reading the paper every day to know what’s going on,” Cartwright told The Arizona Republic in a 2010 interview.
“You learn to focus on basketball while you’re here and let it go when you leave the building. You have to get it out of your mind so you can focus on your family or other things that are important. You have to let your mind rest. You find out when you’re a young player that you can play an entire game at night when you’re sleeping and wake up in the morning exhausted because you played the game already in your mind.
“You learn to turn your mind off through meditation to make your mind clear. It’s a good skill to learn to focus on your breathing and body awareness.”
In another interview with the Phoenix newspaper, Cartwright described his approach to coaching.
“I like to see players get on the floor and do stuff you taught,” the soft-spoken Cartwright said. “As a coach, you get excited about the little things. You encourage them and keep them going in the right direction. Communication won’t be a problem.”
Evessa big man Rick Rickert believes Cartwright’s hire is a win-win situation.
“I’m really looking forward to playing for coach Bill Cartwright,” he told The Japan Times. “This is a very good move for the Evessa as well as the bj-league. This is an opportunity for the bj-league to market an NBA champion and for the Evessa franchise to start fresh and build on positives and become the best yet.
“Hopefully strengthening loyal fans and extending to new fans in a way that hasn’t happened before, it is a rare opportunity to have a former player and coach of his caliber to join a program and offer such insightful experiences.”
When Hill was coaching the Apache, Cartwright had made inquiries to the organization about doing big man’s camps in Japan.
Since the announcement was made Monday, Cartwright’s appointment sent shock waves throughout the bj-league. The move was hailed as a overwhelmingly positive.”
Yokohama B-Corsairs bench boss Reggie Geary, the reigning bj-league Coach of the Year, praised the hire.
“Bill Cartwright’s career as both a player and coach is very impressive to say the least,” Geary told The Japan Times Monday evening. “The addition of his experience and name to our league can only be seen as a positive.
“I feel that Bill is a good coach that understands the game very well,” added longtime NBA guard Jay Humphries, who worked on the Suns coaching staff alongside Cartwright. “I don’t know how familiar he is with the changes in culture and talent level, but he is a patient person. . . . It will take the whole organization to change around a 5-19 team.”
Said Blackwell: “He’s been around the game for a long time and brings experience and the American attitude toward basketball.”
Hernando Planells, who guided the Ryukyu Golden Kings during the Okinawa club’s first season in 2007-08, believes Cartwright has the right credentials for success in Japan.
“He is very patient and works hard, heard he got lost in the shuffle with the Suns — his quiet demeanor may have worked against him a bit,” Planells, now the Duke University women’s basketball team’s director of relations, wrote in an email. “He is not a ‘politician’ as many other coaches are but I think he can do well in Osaka . . . but like everywhere else it comes down to having quality players.”
It’s too early to say if Cartwright will succeed in Osaka, according to Hill.
“Time will tell if it’s a good hire,” Hill wrote in an email. “I think Billy will try hard to do a good job but coaches separate themselves with their instincts. We will see if he has instincts to be a successful coach. His team in Chicago was young and not very good. So that is probably not a good indication either way.”
Those Bulls included current Knicks standout Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry in the frontcourt, and prior to his head coaching stint with the Bulls, Cartwright was credited for helping post player Elton Brand nab the Rookie of the Year accolade in 2000.
“Cartwright’s nickname was ‘Teach’ with the champion Bulls because of his knowledge of the game and ability to communicate with teammates about how to play,” Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame sportswriter Sam Smith, the longtime Bulls beat writer, told The Japan Times. “The young players looked toward Cartwright as a sort of sempai (mentor) in the way his presence was important to the team even though it had Hall of Famer Michael Jordan.
“He is well-liked, well-regarded and one of the more respected people in the NBA,” Smith noted. “He is known for his coaching ability and as the key, final piece for the success of the Bulls as champions when they first won . . .”
Looking ahead to Cartwright’s new role with the Evessa, Smith said, “He understands team dynamics well given his long experience in the NBA as a player and coach, so he has a good idea what elements are vital to the well being and success of a team.”
Cartwright, who hails from Elk Grove, California, near Sacramento, was the No. 3 overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, joining the Knicks after a storied career at USF, where he was a first-team Associated Press All-American as a senior and averaged 24.5 points. The Dons were 96-23 during his college career. He was also an All-American as a sophomore.
He was an NBA All-Star as a rookie and made the All-Rookie first team in 1979-80, averaging 21.7 points and 8.9 rebounds. The next season he posted averages of 20.1 and 7.5. He never averaged more than 20 points per game again, but had longevity in the game despite fracturing his left foot four times, which caused him to miss the entire 1984-85 season and all but two games the next season.
The Knicks selected 213-cm Georgetown University big man Patrick Ewing No. 1 overall in the 1985 NBA Draft, and Cartwright’s role with the Knicks diminished in time, though he did average 17.5 ppg in 1986-87.
In a trade that changed the trajectory of two franchises, hard-nosed forward Charles Oakley was sent to the Knicks in exchange for Cartwright in June 1988.
At the time, Cartwright, then 31, had never appeared in the conference finals or NBA Finals, and the Bulls had not won a title in the Jordan era yet.
“We’re happy to acquire the services of a proven low-post scoring center,” Bulls GM Jerry Krause told The New York Times after the trade was made. “At 31, we feel Bill has excellent years of basketball ahead of him. Also, by obtaining the 11th pick in the draft, we put ourselves in a better position. The development of Horace Grant helped us make such a deal. We feel Horace can be a quality player and develop like Charles Oakley.”
Cartwright retired in 1995, finishing his playing career with the Seattle SuperSonics.
Years later, Cartwright, the starting center on the Bulls’ first three title teams, still commands respects from his peers.
Bob Nash, the Toyama Grouses coach and former NBA forward said, “Bill is a good teacher of the game, so I think he will do just fine. It may take him some time to adjust to the league, officials, travel and the culture.”
Furthermore, Shimane Susanoo Magic coach Zeljko Pavlicevic recognizes the hire is a good P.R. move.
“I think it is not only good for Osaka, but also good for competition, for the bj-league and for a good image,” said Pavlicevic, a Euroleague title winner on two occasions. “Nice.”
NBA Development League and WNBA referee Tim Greene echoed Pavlicevic’s sentiments.
“As great as that franchise was, (this move) can only be a good thing with his knowledge,” said Greene, the former top bj-league official.
Sendai 89ers coach Bob Pierce, meanwhile, expects an adjustment period to take place for Cartwright.
“He’ll be good for Rick Rickert and Mike Bell,” Pierce said. “But they’re in a big hole, and it’s a steep learning curve for someone with little international experience — bj-league referees, for example.
“On the other hand, Bill also has experience as an assistant with New Jersey and Phoenix, after Phil and the Bulls, so he has several systems to draw from.
“He’s asked many times about coaching opportunities in Asia, so he’s probably excited and highly motivated.”