In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of pro basketball, Ryuji Kawai’s 60-30 record in 90 games as head coach wasn’t good enough.
Nor was the fact that as a rookie head coach he took the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to the bj-league title game last May at Ariake Colosseum, where the then-two-time defending champion was dethroned by the Ryukyu Golden Kings.
The final straw?
Losing twice more to those Golden Kings last weekend at home. His ouster was made official on Thursday.
The 37-year-old Kawai, an Aichi Prefecture native, coached his final game for the Phoenix on Sunday, a 78-69 defeat before a packed house of more than 3,000 spectators. Former Japan national team assistant coach and Rera Kamuy Hokkaido sideline supervisor Tomoya Higashino, known as “Coach Crusher” in Japanese basketball circles, was named his replacement.
Hamamatsu (23-15) is 0-4 against Ryukyu this season. The Phoenix, who have lost six of their last 10 games, have a bye week, and currently sit in fifth place in their first season as a Western Conference squad. Four wins separate the top five teams in the West (ranked in order): Ryukyu (26-8), Shimane (25-11), Fukuoka (24-12), Shiga (22-14) and Hamamatsu.
The Phoenix’s “poor performance” was cited as the reason for firing Kawai, the Shizuoka Shimbun reported.
Kawai joins Bob Pierce (Sendai 89ers), Junichiro Hongo (Miyazaki Shining Suns), Tadashi Hayashi (Gunma Crane Thunders), Takao Furuya (Osaka Evessa and Zoran Kreckovic (Osaka) as former head coaches since the bj-league season tipped off in October.
One longtime hoop pundit summed up the Kawai ouster this way: “Poor guy. They were talking about firing him after he lost in the finals to Okinawa. Now there’s barely any difference between first and fifth in the West.”
Kawai had served as an assistant under former Hamamatsu coach Kazuo Nakamura, who led the OSG Phoenix during the team’s JBL days and also to back-to-back titles in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Kawai’s ties to the organization began in 1994, when he was a player, and he had worked for the organization ever since.
When Nakamura stepped down to take over his hometown Akita Northern Happinets in 2011, Kawai stepped into the spotlight and said, “I would like to respect what head coach Nakamura has established and we hope to build our Phoenix brand of ball, step by step.”
Ex-Phoenix star Jermaine Dixon, a Gunma Crane Thunders point guard, was not surprised that Kawai was let go.
“Teams in the bj-league always push the panic button too fast,” Dixon told The Japan Times on Friday. “I don’t know what was going on over there this season, but when you got a vet team like they do with the Phoenix, there’s no need to make changes. They will get into the playoffs with no problem and perform when it’s time to.”
Asked if Kawai was a strong leader while running the team, Dixon responded by saying, “We respected him last season.”
One Eastern Conference head coach reacted to the news this way: “Some of these team’s owners/managers have unrealistic expectations and a lot of that has to do with them knowing nothing about the game of basketball.
“Hamamatsu has been very successful since they came to the bj-league and a lot of that was because of Kazuo. Kawai maybe wasn’t as good of a leader as Kazuo was, but he took them to the finals last year and they are having a good season now and are capable of going back to the Final Four.
“They are playing against tougher competition, in my opinion, in the West on a weekly basis as opposed to the East. Why change coaches at this point when you have a chance to go somewhere still? If they had no chance of making playoffs, then I could see it so they could start building for next year. But if they bring in a new coach now they have to learn a new system. . .”
The Phoenix feature a pair of former MVP winners in Wendell White (2009-10 season) and Jeffrey Parmer (2010-11), the former who rejoined the squad in December and has averaged 20 points in 20 games in that time after leaving the cash-strapped Oita HeatDevils.
Now, there’s no time for excuses, Parmer said, insisting he must step up as a Hamamatsu leader.
“As the captain of this team along with Atsu (center Atsuya Ota), I just have to continue to help my teammates grow as a basketball team each and every day,” Parmer said Friday evening.
In related news, multiple sources revealed Friday night that White is likely done for the season after sustaining a stress fracture, but there were conflicting reports of the injury’s location (hand or foot).
So now, it appears, they’ll be forced to make adjustments on the fly without the UNLV product and with the 42-year-old Higashino at the helm.
Higashino embraces the challenge of coaching a veteran, playoff-tested club. He cited experience as its chief strength.
“I’m very pleased to be the new Hamamatsu-Higashimikawa Phoenix head coach,” Higashino told The Japan Times on Friday
“The team has been doing well since it entered the bj league. So I’d like to keep doing well.
“I’d like to focus on fundamentals and teach them my way of thinking, both (on) defense and offense.”
Higashino said the Phoenix roster includes talented players, including Ota, a Japan national team center, and he wants to find ways to increase the big man’s productivity.
“I feel he can do more than he has done lately,” Higashino added, “just he did with the national team.”
Taking stock of the overall makeup of the team, Higashino said he needs to maximize the team’s potential.
“I just want to help them play hard every night and play together,” the new coach declared.
In addition to his time with Rera Kamuy (2007-10), Higashino has been a JBL2 head coach (with the Broncos) and a Toyota Motors Alvark assistant.
Crusher Basketball Camp completed its 15th anniversary camp last summer, and Higashino also spent time with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ NBA Summer League team as an assistant last summer. He has worked under Zeljko Pavlicevic, the current Shimane coach, and Tom Wisman on the Japan national team from 2004-06 and 2010-12, respectively. Furthermore, while working toward his master’s degree at Waseda University, he wrote his thesis on Argentine basketball.
Pavlicevic and Wisman helped Higashino, who hasn’t previously worked for a bj-league team, expand his hoop horizons during the past decade.
“(Those guys) did a great job with what they had, and so he should have lots of good ideas to draw from,” one longtime Japan hoop pundit said.
Nevertheless, he now enters uncharted territory with Hamamatsu.
“Crusher has also been pretty good at motivating players when the odds were against them,” a league insider told The Japan Times. “Some weaknesses however are that he hasn’t actually coached a team since he left Hokkaido three seasons ago, he probably doesn’t know much about the bj-league personnel — and its crazy on-the-court rules, terrible officiating, etc. — and he sometimes has a hard time making decisions, flip-flopping back and forth from one strategy to another.
“He will only have a short time to make changes, and Hamamatsu’s remaining schedule has some very tough games on it.
“If the national team experience and the ability to motivate take precedence, he should do well. If not, that schedule and the expectations could be brutal.”
News of Kawai’s ouster was the talk of the league on Thursday and Friday.
Shimane Susanoo Magic forward Michael Parker, the 2011-12 All-Star Game MVP, said: “It is very surprising to me. It’s got to be hard to replace a coach so late in the season.”
A Japanese player who’s been in the league since Day One, had a different analysis believing it was time to fire Kawai.
“I’m surprised but at the same time, I think it’s a really professional move by one of the best organization in the league,” said the player who requested anonymity. “Especially with a history winning the two championships in the past, and Hamamatsu keeps being one of the top teams in the bj-league.
“Considering where they are now in the Western Conference, from my point of view, it was right decision to make,” he went on.
“I don’t know too much about coach Higashino, but (the move) wouldn’t change the fact that Hamamatsu is a powerhouse in the league.”
Meanwhile, Shiga Lakestars coach Al Westover disagrees with the just-stated opinion.
“Yes, I’m very surprised,” Westover stated, reacting to Kawai’s departure. “They are a top team, have been a little inconsistent — like most of us, but are capable of going all the way.
“Usually as a coach, if you get your team into the finals, then you think that should be good enough to keep you in work. I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, it’s a job and profession that I love, but it’s also a s—- business to be in.”
Pavlicevic thinks the Phoenix made a rushed decision to show the door to Kawai, saying the competitive balance in the West —five teams separated by four wins, as noted above — was good for the entire conference.
This decision, he said, makes “no sense.”
Higashino has his admirers, people who have seen him work hard year after year to acquire greater knowledge and experience in the sport, including overseas.
“Crusher is great for Japan basketball,” Bruce O’Neil, president of the United States Basketball Academy said in an interview last summer with this newspaper. (He’s) very outgoing and does a very good job of analyzing the game.
“He is going at it the right way in trying to continue to build his connections at the highest levels of basketball in the USA.”
Can Higashino work on an NBA team’s coaching staff someday? O’Neil was asked.
“Cracking the NBA from a coaching standpoint is very difficult, especially for foreign coaches,” said O’Neil. “He should continue to reach out to American coaches both in the NCAA and NBA, D-League, since he got his foot in the door with the NBA Summer League. That alone will set him apart from most Japanese coaches.”
In looking back on Higashino’s time with Rera Kamuy, one hoop observer commended him for his work in building the team.
“He finds good imports. He brought Jawad Williams to Japan in 2007,” the source concluded. “Two years later, (forward) Jawad was in the NBA (with the Cleveland Cavaliers), where he played (for parts of three seasons). He also found Tyler Newton and brought Jai Lewis to Japan.”