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Stranger than fiction: Ryukyu fires Toyama after setting wins record

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Ryukyu Golden Kings failed to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2007-08, their inaugural season in the bj-league. That result proved to be unacceptable to team management.

Thus, despite a league-record 42-10 record, head coach Koto Toyama’s contract was not renewed. The decision to not bring Toyama back for a second season in charge was quietly announced on Sunday, when all attention was focused on the Final Four at Ariake Colosseum.

The Yokohama B-Corsairs captured the championship with a 101-90 win over the Rizing Fukuoka, and before the dust settled on the first title captured by a Kanto team there was another blockbuster basketball story competing to grab people’s attention.

On Monday, the Golden Kings ushered in a new era, appointing longtime assistant coach and Okinawa native Tsutomu Isa as the fourth bench boss in team history, third in as many seasons.

Dai Oketani parted ways with the Golden Kings after their second championship season in May 2012. He was in charge from 2008-12, a glorious era for Ryukyu, with four Final Four appearances, and a 2-1 record in championship games.

Oketani quickly resurfaced as the Iwate Big Bulls coach, and led the Tohoku team to a 15-win improvement in its second season.

The 43-year-old Isa has been with Ryukyu since Day One, first serving as Hernando Planells’ assistant during the team’s inaugural 10-34 season. Since 2008, he has worked alongside fellow assistant Keith Richardson, the only longtime American assistant coach in league history.

As the new head coach, Isa said he’s honored and determined to continue the team’s strong tradition of winning basketball in Okinawa.

Isa said, “I will work to ensure that under the experience that I have been involved with on the team as an assistant coach for six years, while inheriting a good part of the Kings so far, and be able to add a quality (contribution) myself.”

Toyama, who turned 30 on Jan. 19, spent the previous two seasons as the first coach in Miyazaki Shining Suns history. They went 13-37 in 2010-11 and 22-30 last season.

Combined with this season, his won-loss record stands at 76-77, plus a 1-2 record in the playoffs.

The Kyoto Hannaryz defeated Ryukyu in the Western Conference semifinals, closing out the series on May 12 with a mini-game tiebreaker triumph. To force the tiebreaker, Ryukyu whipped Kyoto 90-60 in Game 2.

Though Kings president Tatsuro Kimura is widely viewed as a man wielding absolute power within the organization for personnel matters and described by several league sources as a “control freak,” the decision to change coaches was not only about the team’s championship-or-bust mentality, according to a person with intimate knowledge of the situation.

What else factored into this decision, which was preceded by long, closed-door meetings in Okinawa before the Final Four?

Toyama failed to gain the trust from those within the organization, a well-connected league insider told The Japan Times on Monday.

“There was a lot of lack of confidence, not just from staff but also players,” the source said. “Lots of confusion at times.

“If your team, including players, has no confidence in you, it could get very bad before it gets good. If I was the GM, I would not take that risk. (The Kings) are expected to win but (the coaching) staff is also responsible for developing players physically and mentally.”

And that is where Toyama hit the wall, so to speak, the source said.

“His self-confidence was good,” he added. “It was others’ confidence in him and what he wanted to do that caused the problems.”

Kimura did not respond to requests for comment left by The Japan Times.

One league observer said Kimura refuses to give his coaches room to breathe, and must micromanage all aspects of basketball operations.

What problems were there between Toyama and Kimura?

“The same problems between him and coach Oketani,” the observer said.

Speaking facetiously about the 42-win season not being good enough, he added, “I thought Kimura was going to hire Phil Jackson . . . or lure Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski from Duke, or re-animate John Wooden.”

Reacting to Ryukyu’s change at the top, one former bj-league coach thinks Kimura made an outrageous decision to axe Toyama.

“When the best record in the league isn’t good enough, just fire all the coaches after each season,” the veteran coach wrote in an email on Monday.

A flurry of online comments were posted by basketball fans in the past 36 hours. Many Golden Kings fans were stunned by Toyama’s departure.

One fan tweeted, that the Kings’ ouster of Toyama “is crazy. . . . They don’t need to copy (the) bad side of Euro soccer.”

“It takes time to build teamwork that can generate great chemistry,” read another tweet.

In a statement on the Ryukyu website, Toyama thanked the team’s supporters for their “warm encouragement” this season.

“It was not possible for us to reach our final goal . . . and I am very sorry (for that), but the great, hard work of the players and staff” highlighted the season, he said.”I am proud to have met everyone (here) and thrived on that experience. I would like a new challenge now.”

Richardson believes Isa, a Ginowan native, is the right man to lead the Kings to future success.

“He is a player’s coach,” Richardson told The Japan Times on Monday evening. “He’s tough but fair and is a great game adjuster. I played club basketball with him for many years and he knows the game from a player and coach’s standpoint.

“He has been a student of the game under Planells, Oketani and Toyama and I am sure he will create his own style and we will be very successful for many years to come. Look for big things from him and the Kings in the very near future.”

In related news, a league insider predicted that the Sendai 89ers, coming off a 20-32 season, will hire Toyama as their next sideline supervisor. General manager/acting head coach Takeo Mabashi is expected to step down from his coaching duties.

Cartwright update: Motofumi Iguchi, who became the Osaka Evessa’s new president and general manager earlier this month, confirmed Sunday that Osaka coach Bill Cartwright has a two-year contract, which would carry over to the 2013-14 season.

Cartwright, a former Chicago Bulls head coach, said he’s in no hurry to make a decision about next season.

“I’ll respect his decision. I want him to take his time,” Iguchi told The Japan Times, noting that Cartwright’s wife handled the family’s business matters in the Chicago area while he coached the Evessa. He is the chairman of Cartwright Downes, Inc., which specializes in background checks.

Iguchi had been the Iwate Big Bulls GM for parts of two seasons, shoring up the team’s business strategy, adding several sponsors and bringing in Oketani as coach. . . .

Longtime Evessa fan Wolfy Nishioka was spotted at Ariake on Sunday wearing the jersey of former Osaka superstar Lynn Washington, who proclaimed he was “blackballed” by the league and forced to retire after his arrest on suspicion of smuggling a package containing marijuana into Japan last season.

(All charges against Washington were dropped in April 2012 after his 18-day stay in police custody. His wife, Dana, was later charged with possession of marijuana, which she said was for medicinal purposes. In an exclusive interview, she told this newspaper she had a medical marijuana prescription in California. But she said the package was sent to Japan, where there are strict laws against marijuana, without her knowledge or consent.)

Nishioka’s autographed jersey contained these big, bold words on the back: “Let him play.”

Asked if he had confronted by league officials for wearing the jersey, Nishioka said, “Nobody said anything, but the league doesn’t want me to wear it.”

Coaching carousel: The Shinshu Brave Warriors didn’t renew caoch Takatoshi “Big Bashi” Ishibashi’s contract after the team’s 17-35 season.

Shinshu went 6-20 at home. The Brave Warriors were 18-34 as an expansion team in 2011-12 under Motofumi Aoki, the current Tokyo Cinq Reves bench boss. Aoki was his assistant.

Now the coaching position belongs to Ryuji Kawai, who was fired by the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix after the team fell to 23-15 in late February. Local media reported that Kawai, who led Hamamatsu to a championship runnerup position in 2011-12, and the Brave Warriors have agreed to the basic terms of a contract, and he’ll start the job on July 1. Kawai was 60-30 overall in the regular season at Hamamatsu.

Vlasios Vlaikidis, the first coach in Iwate history, is poised to become the next Shimane Susanoo Magic, multiple sources reported late Tuesday evening. An announcement was expected on Wednesday, a team insider revealed.

Vlaikidis was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

Zeljko Pavlicevic led Shimane from 2010-13, with the team’s win total improving each season. He led the Susanoo Magic to three straight playoff appearances, starting in their inaugural season, and will coach in the rebranded JBL (now called the NBL) for the 2013-14 season.

Vlaikidis worked as an assistant under Pavlicevic when the latter was the head coach at Panathinaikos Athens in the early 1990s.

The Greek mentor was 7-19 at Iwate before stepping down due to a critical illness in his family in his native country.

Quotable: “To lose here is always like the worst feeling, a gigantic climax and then a huge depression. I’ll hopefully make it back next year.” — Kyoto’s David Palmer, describing the feeling of losing in the Western Conference final against the Rizing Fukuoka on Saturday.

By the numbers: After scoring 54 points in a slow-down, grind-it-out win over the Niigata Albirex BB in the Eastern Conference final, the B-Corsairs nearly doubled that total in the title contest, with 47 more points. Backcourt mates Masayuki Kabaya, the playoff MVP, and sixth man Draelon Burns combined for 69 points, 35 for the former in the season finale. . . .

With 31 wins in 2011-12 and 35 this season, Yokohama has eclipsed the Saitama Broncos’ win total from the past four seasons by four victories. . . .

Palmer appeared in his sixth Final, second only to Ryukyu big man Jeff Newton’s seven in league history.

Looking ahead: A Hoop Scoop column highlighting the B-Corsairs’ championship season is in the works.

Feedback: Got a story idea on the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp