There was something refreshing, interesting and fun about the Yokohama B-Corsairs from the beginning. It wasn’t always the easiest thing to explain in a few short words.
Sure, there were the carefully orchestrated parts — the Xs and Os, in-game adjustments — but the bj-league team just seemed to know what it was doing from the get-go.
Head coach Reggie Geary walked onto the home court at Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium for the team’s first regular-season game in October 2011 with confidence, knowing what he wanted to accomplish. That game witnessed the birth of a model franchise, the B-Corsairs playing a high-energy, physical brand of basketball and falling in overtime to the then-two-time-defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix.
The rapid rise of the B-Corsairs from brand new franchise to Final Four participant and third-place finisher out of 19 teams last season caught everybody’s attention. Justin Burrell’s regular-season MVP award was special. Geary’s Coach of the Year accolade was a fitting tribute for the team’s 31-21 record.
Fast forward to 2013. Sunday’s 101-90 championship game triumph over the Rizing Fukuoka was a terrific performance by the B-Corsairs. Captain Masayuki Kabaya had a brilliant game, scoring 35 points on 12-for-16 shooting (5-for-5 on 3-pointers). Draelon Burns delivered the expected heroics: 34 points, including 13-for-16 at the free-throw line, five assists and two steals.
Thomas Kennedy and Faye Pape Mour both scored 11 points and displayed toughness and composure in the high-pressured environment at Ariake Colosseum.
Burns’ 34-point effort off the bench was not a surprise. The DePaul University alum has set a standard of excellence for all future sixth men in this league. And he has been a joy to watch this season. His nonstop energy, confidence and ability to see plays develop a split second or two before most players on the court are all unique skills.
Point guard Kenji Yamada, a steady presence in the backcourt for two seasons, said team unity produced big results.
“We did what were supposed to do,” he said surrounded by reporters in the euphoric afterglow of Sunday’s championship, “and our coach made us play with energy. And this was possible as a result of all that.”
The B-Corsairs went 35-17 during the regular season. After going 2-2 in October and 5-3 in November, they dropped two straight to the Toyama Grouses on Dec. 1-2, then rattled off nine straight wins to improve to 17-6. This was a message to the entire league: Last season’s Final Four appearance was no fluke. Geary was in complete command of his team and had a roster with the right mix of talent and experience to contend for a title.
Yokohama had only five losing streaks en route to the title, and all were of the shortest variety — two games. And if Burns did not go down with a leg injury against the Iwate Big Bulls in late February, it’s not inconceivable to think a 40-win season was beyond the B-Corsairs’ reach.
Simply put, Geary got the maximum productivity out of his players. It’s what he demanded. It’s what they delivered.
Asked what were the most satisfying aspects of his role in making the team into a powerhouse in such a short time in a league with unique challenges — so much turnover among players and coaches and never-ending expansion — Geary gave an eloquent response.
“The most satisfying aspects are: First, I was given complete freedom from day one to acquire the American players myself and to implement my basketball philosophies and teachings which have resulted in great success,” he told The Japan Times.
“Second, I was embraced by the players I work with, they bought into my system and style, and watching them execute on such a high level is very gratifying. So for them to work as hard as they have and win it all, I am honored to be a part of their championship journey…”
It was a fascinating contrast in styles that carried the B-Corsairs to a championship. They eked out a 54-52 victory over the Niigata Albirex BB in the Eastern Conference final last Saturday night, and they nearly doubled that scoring total against a high-powered Fukuoka squad led by Reggie Warren, Julius Ashby, Josh Peppers and Akitomo Takeno.
Furthermore, Yokohama can now claim ownership of “The Shot” in the league’s annals. On Saturday, Burns’ buzzer-beating baseline jumper over big men Chris Holm and Rodney Webb was as improbable as it was thrilling. And in my view, it was the biggest clutch shot in league history. Amazing.
Geary turns 40 on Aug. 31. He’s still a young head coach, but the former NBA and University of Arizona guard has already achieved what most coaches spend decades chasing: that elusive title. Even so, the outgoing bench boss has the unshakable desire to soak up more knowledge about the game. He’s as eager to watch any game as a kid is to visit a candy store.
“I’m always watching and studying as much basketball as possible,” Geary said. “Whether it’s NBA, NCAA, or bj-league games you can usually find me watching any one of them or more daily. Obviously during the season my assistant (Michael Katsuhisa) and I are following the bj-league mostly and our upcoming opponents, but with today’s technology, I can watch a lot of NBA and sporting events in the United States.”
Roles were clearly defined on this team, but Geary had a deft hand in making subtle adjustments throughout the season. He’s worked tirelessly with Mour, a raw but talented post player from Senegal, and helped him become a dependable frontcourt regular.
After losing big men Chas McFarland and Burrell after season, Geary retooled the team into a quicker version, not unlike a driver trading in a Lincoln Continental for a Porsche. The team’s overall speed enabled it to switch between man and zone defenses with smooth transition.
Kennedy was a perfect complement to Burns and Kabaya as they formed a potent Big Three that scored a combined 80 points in the title game. (They averaged a combined 53.5 of the team’s 82.8 points per game during the regular season.)
“I think my role was just to go out there and give it my all as far as scoring and rebounding and defending and help my team as much as possible,” said Kennedy, who attended University of Detroit Mercy before embarking on a pro career.
There’s no denying the fact that Geary has done a remarkable job in two seasons in Japan, identifying talent and getting players to buy into his system.
Kennedy, who suited up for the Iwate Big Bulls during their inaugural 2011-12 campaign, recognizes how impressive the B-Corsairs have been in their two-season existence, including this season.
“We’ve got a good group of guys (and) a good coaching staff that just really believes and always keeps all of us on the same page,” he said. “And (Geary) just keeps our egos in check and he bonds us … he entwines our emotions together, so we all want to see each other do well.”
In capturing the title on Sunday, the B-Corsairs’ performance highlighted the qualities that have been trademarks all season. Kennedy described it this way: “My teammates are so great, so positive, so focused and locked in on our assignments that we knew it was going to be a tough battle, but we went out there and gave it our all…”
Geary served as an NBA Development League head coach in Anaheim and was on the Arizona and SMU men’s basketball team staffs. His stock has risen.
Will that translate into a new high-profile gig?
“People have definitely stood up and taken notice of the job I’ve been doing here in Japan,” he admitted. “Attending the NBA Summer League last off-season (in Las Vegas), I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people who had heard about the team’s success and me being named Coach of the Year. This coaching business is so difficult in terms of predicting where one will be that I’ve given up on speculating.
“I’ll continue to work hard to be a great example for my children to follow your dreams with all your energy and hopefully that leads me to a NBA, NCAA, or a job coaching here in Japan.”
His two-contract with the B-Corsairs expired. So what’s been discussed for next season? I asked.
“I’ve had a preliminary discussion with Yokohama, but no decision has been made,” Geary said. “And I have been patiently waiting. My first choice is to remain in Yokohama due to wanting to continue to build on what I started here. Plus with all the support and kindness shown to us by the great B-Cor boosters, and the life my wife and kids have built here, it would mean a lot to come back. But we’ll have to see how things play out over the coming weeks and months while other potential offers also roll in.”
Being the recognized leader of a reigning champion is a neat thing. And Geary has seen the team’s support rise since it played that first game against Hamamatsu 18 months ago.
He has gained a lot of satisfaction in seeing Kanagawa Prefecture fans develop a passion for the team.
“It has been amazing to watch as the B-Cor fan base has grown over these two seasons, and our boosters are very loyal and dedicated to our team,” he said. “It is satisfying to also reward their support with a championship. Our boosters really enjoy basketball, and they always bring us energy through their cheers and chants throughout the games.
“Our fans are truly like a family with their signs for the players, the huge B-Cor flags waving in the stands, and the pirate hats they hand out and wear…”
The four-letter abbreviation B-Cor will appear more frequently in Japanese media in the weeks and months to come after the championship, and broadcast appearances by team members will rise as well. This is a big deal in a city that has seen the Yokohama BayStars become the Central League’s worst baseball team in recent years.
“Now with the exposure that comes with winning the bj-league title, more people will know about us and will hopefully come and check out the B-Cor games next season,” Geary said. “It’s also important to mention that a championship team should be an easy sell to win over potential sponsors going forward so that the team and franchise can remain in Yokohama for many seasons to come.”
Coaches may speak about potential sponsors on occasion, but Geary’s bread and butter remains the game itself and the work that goes into preparing his players to excel on to the court.
“I’m a strong believer in the fundamentals,” he said. “When combined with talent and communicated properly, they are vitally important for coaches in terms of player development and team success. Sharing what you know and have experience, as well as having a good working relationship with your players to assist with putting them in the best possible situation to succeed, is what coaching is all about in my opinion.”
It’s no secret why the Yokohama B-Corsairs have thrived. After all, team president Kazuto Hirota and general manager Naoki Ogawa have the right man for the job, Reggie Geary.