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Osaka coach Cartwright puts focus on fundamentals

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Japan Times features periodic interviews with individuals in the bj-league. Head coach Bill Cartwright of the Osaka Evessa is the subject of this week’s profile.

Age: 55

Ht: 216 cm

Hometown: Elk Grove, California

College: Univ. of San Francisco

NBA career: 1979-95 (New York, Chicago, Seattle)

Noteworthy: Cartwright was selected No. 3 overall by the New York Knicks in the 1979 NBA Draft, two spots behind Magic Johnson (Los Angeles Lakers). He averaged 20-plus points in each of his first two seasons with New York, and made the All-Star team as a rookie. He fractured his left foot four times and missed nearly two full seasons in his prime, including all but four games in 1985-86.

He won three championship rings as the Bulls starting center in 1991, ’92 and ’93, and served as an assistant coach for Phil Jackson on the final two years of the Bulls’ second three-peat in 1996-97 and 1997-98.

Before his NBA days, Cartwright was a standout All-American center at USF, where he helped the Dons reach No. 1 in the Associated Press poll in 1977 and make three NCAA Tournament appearances during his college career. . . . After being a Bulls assistant (1996-2001), he served as the team’s head coach (2001-03, with a 51-100 record in the post-Jordan era), and had stints as an assistant for the New Jersey Nets (2004-08) and Phoenix Suns (2008-12).

Looking back at Cartwright’s NBA career last week, legendary basketball scribe Peter Vecsey told The Japan Times, “He was a real man as a player. Was the one to get into (Scottie) Pippen’s face in locker room after he refused to play when Jackson gave (Toni) Kukoc the attempt to tie (Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals), which he hit.

“He was also the guy who helped (Michael) Jordan win his first titles. Michael hated him for quite a while, ordering teammates not to pass him ball in the fourth quarter, but, I believe, he came to appreciate him.

“Hubie (Brown) had an impossible job as Knicks coach because Cartwright was a very good center but (Patrick) Ewing, a team player in the minds of most, refused to play outside as PF. Hence, the (Charles) Oakley-Cartwirght trade that helped both teams, but the Bulls most. . . “


In a post-game interview after the Evessa (7-19) defeated Miyazaki 89-79 on Jan. 27 to complete a series sweep, Cartwright, the most prominent basketball figure to ever land a job in Japan, provided his perspective on a number of topics.

Upon arriving here a few days ago, what was the first Japanese meal you ate? And how was it?

I don’t remember the meal, but since then I have had some noodles. Fortunately and unfortunately for my body, I love all food, including Japanese food. I love sushi. I love everything, so it’s all good.

For one thing, I’ve always liked to expose myself to different things. That’s why I’m here. When this opportunity came up, I saw it as a great opportunity to have an adventure to be able to come out here and expose myself to different things, so the culture part of it, yeah, I’ll try anything (including food) once to check it out.

As a music enthusiast, what kind of guitar do you usually play, electric or acoustic? And what type of music do you normally practice playing?

I have an acoustic guitar, which is in Chicago. I’m still basically a beginner. I’m working in blues riffs.

After leaving the Phoenix Suns following the 2011-12 season, have you had an itch to return to coaching? And has it grown more and more week to week, month to month — did you miss coaching?

Yes, that’s correct. I am a coach. This last year was the first one I’ve been off from playing or coaching for about 30 years, so it’s been real interesting and also I have a business in Chicago, a background investigating-checking company, and that allowed me to do something different, which has been fun. I’ve met a lot of great people, had a lot of great interaction, and then here I am.

Were you actively looking at other coaching opportunities?

I knew I was going to do something. I just didn’t know what. In the meantime, I was still doing basketball camps and coaches clinics all over the country. Even though I wasn’t coaching, I was still really busy, unbelievably busy.(He said the camps ranged in size from 70 to 250 kids, and 15 to 150 coaches at the clinics, including some NBA guys. “Whoever wants to learn and be exposed to something different, they’ll show up,” he noted.)

In your own words, can you describe yourself as a coach?

Well, I’m a systems coach both in offense and defense. I believe in order for a player to be coached, he’s got to be taught first. So our coaching staff, we’re teachers first. We have to teach them everything, from the basics of passing, dribbling, shooting. I’m a big believer in the basics. Footwork, which is lost in our business, because of the urgency of just getting players through (from college to the NBA), you find out that their fundamental skills are really poor and players simply exist on their athleticism.

The good teams that I’ve been on focus on basic fundamentals, and if you’re a good passing team, or if you have really good fundamentals, your footwork and your offensive and defensive system is sound to where you taught guys how to play in that system, that team is going to be pretty good, whether it’s a Phil Jackson system, whether it’s a Jerry Sloan, whether it’s a Rick Adelman, whether it’s a (Gregg) Popovich system. You’ve got to be taught before you can coach.

Are you more patient as a coach than you were during your playing days in terms of your approach to the game? And are you a more wise basketball guy at this stage of your life?

Well, we would all like to think that. We would all like to think that were smarter than we were or wiser than we were in the past, but when you’re playing a game like we played this game tonight, it’s on an emotional level, and your expectations are very high for your guys to succeed. Tomorrow you can be a little more philosophical about “it’s going to take a little more time for us to be together, to teach our offense, to teach our defense.”

But when we’re in the fight, we have to find a way to be successful, and that’s what it’s all about. Some games you are not going to shoot well, some games you’re maybe going to be in foul trouble. There’s going to be a problem every game, and it doesn’t matter. It’s (about) how we’re going to overcome as a team and be successful and fight — just fight our way to a win.

How many Evessa games have you watched so far on the computer or on film?

Not a lot. Maybe eight games, which for me is not a lot, but I didn’t feel like that was important right now because the most important thing is us and how we’re going to play, and what we are going to do defensively.

Right now, it’s not important what the other team is doing. It’s important to learn the system, so once that happens, then we’ll start focusing a little bit more on our opponent, not to say we’re not, we’re going to lock in on them (Ryukyu Golden Kings) this next week. But if we’re not sound, it doesn’t matter what we know about them, we’re not going to be successful.

As a basic timetable to learn your offensive and defensive systems, how many weeks or days are you hoping it takes the team?

I don’t know. Normally you have a training camp and then you can build into it. The big thing I was just telling our guys is I told the truth. I said, “Look, I don’t know you guys that well, and it’s going to take me some time to figure out what you can do.” . . . I’ve got to come to know you quickly to see who I want to play at the end of the game (and) who’s going to be our best players under pressure.

What surprised you the most about this weekend, your first series in charge for the Evessa, from either game?

I haven’t seen them enough to be able to make an accurate assessment of how talented they are.

Is your coaching style a blend of those you’ve played and worked under, including Red Holzman (Knicks), Doug Collins (Bulls) and Phil Jackson (Bulls)? And how did that osmosis of being a part of the NBA for more than 30 years mold you into the coach you are today?

I just want to be myself. I was fortunate to be able to play for all those guys, but I think the best thing you do as a coach is be true to yourself and what you believe, and when that happens, you are a genuine person. I think if I try to be something else, those guys would see that it’s not you. I’ve got to be myself, what my personality is. I’m pretty direct as far as telling guys this is what I need from you.

When you think of motivational tactics that you might be able to incorporate here, do you think you may decide one day to show the Evessa one of your NBA championship rings or film of one of the Bulls’ title-clinching games?

I don’t know, maybe something with an edit or something like that. I don’t wear jewelry. I think the guys are more interested in just the truth and how it relates to them. I think if everybody is held with the same standard — this is what we do, this is what we expect — I want you to feel comfortable.

Anybody can talk to me about anything at any time. We’re all on the same side; we all want to be successful as a team. I want you to be very successful as a player, which I know there’s a lot of trust both ways because the players are only as good as the coaching staff, and the coaching staff is only as good as the players.

So there’s a lot of trust that goes on. These guys are entrusting us to their future, and vice versa, so we as coaches have got to be good, we’ve got to work our ass off, we’ve got to be very, very good, and hold ourselves to the same standard we’re holding the players to.

In your long basketball career, even though you are in Japan, do you think you could bounce ideas off of your many contacts at any time — use them as a resource or pick their brain?

Right now, no. I think we have basic stuff (to focus) on first. We’re not at any level where we can be adding stuff. We’ve definitely got to crawl before we can walk, and walk before we run.

What’s your basic message to the players?

You’re going to get an opportunity. We don’t know when it’s coming but when it’s coming, you better be ready to step up and we’ll see what you’ve got.

But the main thing is our level of play and be able to execute and compete hard, really hard. . . . Okinawa is good, so we know we’re going to get beat up bad if we’re not playing at a high level.

What achievement, game, or moment do you consider the most memorable or unforgettable from your NBA playing days?

The first championship was the most memorable moment for me because we beat L.A. I remember we were tied at 1-1 and going to L.A. we had three games in L.A., and no one expected that we would win a game over there but we swept the three games.

What singular personality trait did Michael Jordan possess that those on the Bulls saw that was really unknown to the general public?

He had endorsements and a lot of people tried to take his precious time. Even so, he was never late for a practice, always a hard worker and, especially, he always put basketball first.