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Cartwright confident he can turn lowly Osaka around

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Bill Cartwright era brings a pleasant jolt of great interest to the Osaka Evessa’s tumultuous season.

The Evessa, losers of all but five of their 24 games this season, make their debut under Cartwright on Saturday night in the opener of a two-game series against the lowly Miyazaki Shining Suns (4-22) in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture. Tipoff is 6 p.m.

It’s not the weekend’s marquee matchup by any stretch of the imagination, what with Osaka and Miyazaki sitting ninth and 10th, respectively, in the 10-team Western Conference standings, but it’s a start for Cartwright.

The former NBA standout, a three-time title winner as a player as the starting center for the Chicago Bulls in the early 1990s as Michael Jordan reached the pinnacle of his profession for the first time, has been handed a blank slate to improve the Evessa.

The highest-profile NBA name to join the bj-league in any capacity, the 57-year-old Cartwright arrived in Japan this week with a “sense of adventure and newness,” he told reporters at a news conference in Osaka on Wednesday.

The former Chicago Bulls head coach revealed “I’ve always wanted to come here (to Japan).” He added that he views this opportunity as a “great challenge and fun. . . . Personally, I love a challenge.”

Making general observations about his overall impressions of Japan, Cartwright said that he considers Japanese society to be one that promotes “a whole lot of caring about each other. That’s really amazing to me.”

Cartwright steps into the spotlight previously occupied by Takao Furuya, who was 5-15 as the Evessa head coach after replacing Serbian bench boss Zoran Kreckovic after Osaka’s 0-4 start in October.

The Evessa have improved in recent weeks, though, as evidenced by three victories in their last five contests before last Sunday’s All-Star Game at Ariake Colosseum.

Cartwright realizes he won’t be a miracle worker in Kansai.

“Of course we’ve only had two practices,” noted the No. 3 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, adding that he believes the team has “firepower and weapons, and we’ll continue to practice to make it very difficult for our opponents.”

Led by veteran post player Rick Rickert, All-Star forward Nathan Walkup and well-traveled standout forward Mike Bell, a consistent 20-point, 10-rebound performer since his arrival in the league in 2009 with the Oita HeatDevils, there are pieces to the puzzle to turn things around.

In addition, guards Masashi Obuchi, Satoshi Takeda and Shota Konno have experienced the pressure of playoff basketball over several seasons in the league.

Newcomer Dwayne Lathan adds athleticism and youthful vigor to the backcourt, and under-utilized forward Taizo Kawabe was a key contributor for the Kyoto Hannaryz in past seasons.

The Evessa have lost 10 games in single digits this season, games that past teams under three-time champion bench boss Kensaku Tennichi (2005-10) and former coach Ryan Blackwell (2010-12) would often end up as victories.

Cartwright said that the difference between wins and loses is often minuscule, an area he wants to focus on.

From what he’s seen thus far of the team on film, Cartwright said that “the team has, I believe, played well in meaningful situations. In close games, we’re really not that far away.”

Starting Saturday, he called the two-game series against Miyazaki “an opportunity to test ourselves to see how far we can go. I don’t know right now.”

The Evessa would likely need a miracle to qualify for the postseason, as the team sits far behind the playoff contenders in the Western Conference. That doesn’t mean, however, that the team’s final 28 games will be a chance to just go through the motions.

“I just want players to be the best they can be,” said Cartwright, who served as an NBA assistant coach for the Bulls (adding two championship rings in 1996-97 and 1997-98 to his resume), New Jersey Nets and Phoenix Suns since retiring as a player in 1995.

“They are young and very anxious to prove themselves,” the 216-cm sideline supervisor added.

First and foremost, he described his leadership positions as one that involves doing “everything possible to help them reach their goal.”

“The goal for this season is to develop our team into the best team we can be,” the former University of San Francisco star declared.

To reach that goal, he said, the Evessa will use an up-tempo style of play.

“In my view, a team is a reflection of the city they play in,” Cartwright said.

“Osaka is a hard-working city, hard-working people, and that’s what we’re going to be. . . “

One of the first messages that Cartwright gave to his players was this: “The spirit of a team, that’s what makes a basketball team.”

And all of those years in the NBA from 1979-2012 as a player, scout (for the Seattle SuperSonics), assistant coach and head coach have given him a closeup view about what works and what doesn’t in pro basketball.

Which is why, he told reporters that “we know as the season goes on we’re going to get better and win games.”

Seeing the broader picture, Cartwright said he hopes the Evessa can be a catalyst for the sport’s growth in Japan.

“Basketball is a great sport,” he concluded, “and we are hoping to teach the people of Japan that it’s a very exciting sport. Every kid has a chance to do it and do well.

“Hopefully with our style of play, people will want to come out and watch a very exciting team.”

Looking ahead: The Evessa have 14 home games remaining after this weekend.

They’ll play host to the Oita HeatDevils (Feb. 9-10), Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (Feb. 16-17), Saitama Broncos (March 2-3), Shinshu Brave Warriors (March 16-17), Akita Northern Happinets (April 6-7), Oita (April 13-14) and Ryukyu Golden Kings (April 27-28). . . . Those games will be held at five different venues.