After three seasons in charge, Zeljko Pavlicevic is leaving the Shimane Susanoo Magic.
The bj-league team, which reached the Western Conference playoff semifinals for the first time last week, made a formal announcement on Monday.
Pavlicevic has accepted an offer to coach an NBL (rebranded JBL) team next season, sources familiar with the situation told The Japan Times.
For many, his departure triggered an emotional reaction. The 62-year-old Croatian coach received an outpouring of support from team boosters in Fukuoka after the Magic’s season-ending defeat to the Rizing in the Western Conference playoffs and on social media. One supporter posted this Facebook message to the coach: “Thank you for showing a game splendid to the very end. You are (a) splendid coach. As for us, you came to Shimane and were very glad. We love you…”
As fans got word that a change was imminent in Shimane, they worked diligently to show their appreciation for what Pavlicevic had accomplished in his three seasons at the helm. On Sunday, Pavlicevic was handed a petition with 3,707 fans’ signatures asking him to return to the team.
That was a “big surprise for me and very nice,” Pavlicevic told The Japan Times. “Money is not everything.”
Basketball insiders have informed this newspaper that Pavlicevic was seeking a two-year contract extension with an option for a third season. In the words of one source, “(The initial) Shimane offer was for one season and he had two (NBL) offers for two years plus a one-year option. They reacted too late. Then they gave him the same offer.”
Pavlicevic’s decision had already been made, and he would not back out of the agreement with the NBL club, according to one basketball insider.
Sources have kept a tight lid on which NBL team Pavlicevic is joining, and he declined to provide any details. Some insiders predict he’ll become the Wakayama Trians’ next coach. (The Panasonic Trians, who are relocating from Osaka to Wakayama Prefecture, went 21-21 and finished in fifth place in the eight-team JBL this season. Atsushi Ono is the current coach.)
The Susanoo Magic, meanwhile, are in need of a head coach for the first time since 2010. They went 24-26 in their opening season, 28-24 in 2011-12 and 33-29 this season. Two sixth-place finishes and a third-place finish are now in the books.
Pavlicevic, was the Japan national team head coach from 2003-06, including the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship in Japan. He posted an 85-79 record in three seasons with Shimane and led the club to three playoff appearances. The Rizing Fukuoka ended the Susanoo Magic’s season on Sunday to earn a trip to the Final Four.
More than anything, Pavlicevic brought instant gravitas to the Chugoku-based club. He was a two-time Euroleague winner who had coached the likes of Toni Kukoc and Drazen Petrovic.
Team president Daisuke Akaike thanked Pavlicevic for establishing the foundation of the team “with outstanding leadership” in a statement.
“I value the spirit of Zeljko, who built the team,” Akaike said in a statement, referring to the coach’s contributions.
In a March interview with The Japan Times, two-time All-Star MVP forward Michael Parker, who joined Shimane for the 2011-12 season, offered his thoughts on his mentor.
“He has coached at a very high level through his career,” Parker said, “and he is always willing to tell you who he has coached and how he has made them better. You have to listen because of the names he says, like Kukoc or Petrovic, they were top-tier players of the world.
“He has won Euroleague titles and coached national teams (including Japan), so his resume speaks for itself. He demands a lot from his players, but it is all for a reason and that is to win.”
Under Pavlicevic’s tutelage, center Jeral Davis has been the league’s top shot blocker for the past three seasons, and Tatsuhiro Yokoo, Koki Yabuuchi, Edward Yamamoto, Shohei Nakama and Yasuhisa Hikino have improved their skills since the team’s inception. What’s more, former Magic guard Takumi Ishizaki became the first active bj-league player to suit up for the Japan national team.
Looking back at the past two seasons, Parker commented more about his coach on Tuesday.
“Just like any franchise that loses its first coach, it will be a new start for Shimane,” Parker said. “He has been their only coach so it is kind of a crossroads for them. He has been here since Day One so now they will have the task of moving forward without him.
“He got a book with over 3,000 signatures asking him to stay, so that shows that he had the support of the fan base. Shimane loves basketball so the boosters are involved in everything, so hopefully they can rebound from losing him.
“For me, playing under him has been a good two years. I learned to be more patient and more of a team player. I learned to look at basketball from a different point of view. With him, I enjoyed two winning seasons, where together the team was 18 games over .500 and in two playoff series losses we only came up one shot short. Just like any team, we could have done better but we could have done a lot worse.
“All in all, it was a good two years’ full of learning experiences.”
For Pavlicevic, after a five-win improvement over last season and a hard-fought series victory over the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, now it’s time to savor the team’s achievements.
“It was a very, very good season,” Pavlicevic told The Japan Times. “Now it’s time for rest and a move to a new city.
“In my three years in Shimane, it was for me one of the best satisfactions of my sporting life,” he added. “We started from zero with only four players, and two of them were almost amateurs, Yamamoto and Hikino. … We just tried to be the best each year. Work dedication and enthusiasm was a strong point. With good Americans, Parker, Davis, B.J. Puckett and (Brandon) Freeman, this was a full team.
“With fans’ support, lots of sponsors and political help and the arena filled, it was like the South American atmosphere for the team, and it’s a wonderful memory.”
What was Pavlicevic’s chief objective from the start?
“My mission was to form a strong competitive team in three years,” he said, adding, “I wish the team (future) luck because it will always stay in my mind . . . and I will always be in contact with Matsue, Shimane Prefecture.”