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Osaka president Iguchi forced out after three months

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Osaka Evessa president Motofumi Iguchi has been forced to resign without ever presiding over a game, The Japan Times has learned.

An announcement is expected after the Bon holiday period. The Evessa team offices are closed this week.

Iguchi’s unprecedented departure due to “philosophical differences,” was the way a longtime team insider described the situation. Pressed for more details, the insider said it boiled down to this: how Iguchi wanted to run the team and how Human Holdings Co., Ltd., the team’s parent company, wanted him to do his job.

League insiders have confirmed Iguchi no longer has a job with the Western Conference franchise, which has won a league-record three titles. Details have trickled in over the past several days.

Iguchi signed his resignation papers on Aug. 9, exactly a week before his 34th birthday.

Contacted by phone on Wednesday, Iguchi declined to comment, saying his contract prohibited him from discussing the matter. He did, however, acknowledge this: “I’m sad.”

Having previously served as an assistant general manager for the Shiga Lakestars (2008-10) and general manager for the Iwate Big Bulls (2012-13) and scout for the Niigata Albirex BB and Toyama Grouses, Iguchi brought well-rounded experience to the Evessa.

The Kagoshima native was credited with stabilizing the Iwate front office and establishing a business plan, adding a number of key sponsors, for instance, after a rocky start in its expansion season. He also hired two-time champion coach Dai Oketani to lead the Big Bulls.

Iguchi mulled front-office executive offers from the Tokyo Cinq Reves and Yokohama B-Corsairs, but took the Evessa job. He began working for Osaka in early May, just days after the regular season ended. His hectic offseason workload focused on rebuilding the team’s business operations.

In the words of one source, he was hired to “fix the team’s financial problems,” which included ¥230 million in the red for operating expenses for the 2012-13 season, and heavy losses on an annual basis.

Despite their past accomplishments as perennial title contenders, the Evessa have been described as a “dysfunctional franchise” by longtime league observers.

When it released Evessa business plans to stockholders for fiscal 2013-14 in late March, Human Holdings’ specific targets for ticket sales (double the numbers from 2012-13), and new sponsors and booster club membership were “very, very high . . . almost impossible,” one source said, adding those targets were probably only attainable for two bj-league teams, the Ryukyu Golden Kings and Akita Northern Happinets.

Iguchi presented a more toned-down business plan to company officials, multiple sources told this newspaper. This, however, was met with resistance, including at a company meeting on Aug. 3.

In short, Iguchi had more modest short-term goals with an approach that focused on building toward more long-term targets for the booster club, sponsorship and ticket sales.

“Human Holdings’ plan was too (ambitious),” an insider said, describing Iguchi’s opposition to it. For example, an insider pointed out, Human Holdings set a target of 5,000 booster club members for the 2013-14 season. There were about 1,500 members last season.

The Evessa endured their first-ever losing season in 2012-13, going 22-30. So the team had little positive momentum to carry it into the offseason.

Former Chicago Bulls head coach Bill Cartwright took over in January and guided the team to a 17-11 record to close out the season before stepping down as coach. The team had gone 5-19 under Zoran Kreckovic, who was let go after an 0-4 start, and Takao Furuya, former team manager turned general manager turned coach, after longtime GM Hirotaro Nomamoto was relieved of his duties after the team’s winless preseason.

(And popular coach Ryan Blackwell was not brought back for a third year in charge to begin the 2012-13 campaign, setting in motion a season of chaos.)

So why was Iguchi’s plan the final straw?

“They didn’t like (Iguchi’s) plan,” a league source said, stating he presented “more realistic targets and they didn’t like it.”

The fact that Iguchi spoke his mind exacerbated the issue. “Those numbers are impossible for the bj-league. I have to be honest with them,” the source recalled Iguchi telling company officials.

Iguchi recruited team staff from the Rizing Fukuoka and Niigata Albirex BB to help him increase sponsorship and team booster club members; whereas these tasks were previously only handled by “30 company employees brought in from Human Holdings,” a source said. In eight seasons, “it was almost always the same people from Human,” was the way one insider painted the picture of staff complacency.

He also set out to reverse a trend that disturbed him: The team was averaging a loss of 15 sponsors every season, and focusing only on getting new ones.

And so Iguchi visited old sponsors and urged them to come back; in addition, he sought out new sponsors, too. He also apologized for past issues that may have caused them to end their affiliation with the team.

“Human Holdings didn’t like that,” one source said and then repeated a question asked to Iguchi: “How come you visit people who quit the team?”

The source recalled Iguchi pointing out that “we have to ask sponsorship to come back one time.” The source acknowledged that Iguchi viewed Human Holdings as a successful business corporation, but as a mismanaged basketball team that hasn’t devoted itself to maintaining important ties with team supporters.

“Human Holdings doesn’t look at how the boosters look at the team,” the source said. “They just follow their own way.”

With new coach Shunsuke Todo, who replaced Cartwright, and Iguchi working together, the Evessa have assembled a solid to-be-announced trio of foreign players: forwards Zach Andrews and Kevin Galloway and center Dillion Sneed. The team is still finalizing its choice of one more import player.

Andrews spent the past two seasons with the NBA Development League’s Los Angeles D-Fenders. He played in 32 games in 2012-13, averaging 7.0 points and 5.8 rebounds. The 206-cm Bradley University alum suited up in 44 games for the D-Fenders in 2011-12, scoring 9.3 ppg and grabbing 7.3 rpg. With the Albirex in 2010-11, Andrews averaged double figures in points (11.1) and rebounds (10.8).

Galloway’s versatility enabled him to excel as a point forward for the Phoenix last season. Including the playoffs, Galloway posted these totals for Hamamatsu: 16.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks per game, one of the best statistical seasons in bj-league history.

An imposing inside presence, Sneed was the league’s top field-goal shooter, converting 60.9 percent of his shots en route to 16.2 ppg for the Big Bulls in 2012-13.

This offseason, the Evessa have undergone a complete makeover of their roster, signing veteran guards Takanori Goya, Naoto Nakamura, Haruyuki Ishibashi, Yosuke Sugawara, all of whom played elsewhere last season, with well-traveled Naoto Takushi also set to sign a contract for the upcoming season. A two-time Best Five selection, Takushi split last season between the Oita HeatDevils and Iwate.

Future landscape: With the National Basketball League’s launch in September, the JBL’s successor has announced it will add an expansion franchise in Hiroshima for the 2014-15 season. The city, many have argued, would’ve been an ideal market for a bj-league team and give the Shimane Susanoo Magic a natural regional rival.

At the same time, the NBDL (renamed JBL2) is also growing. So this question was posed to a Japan basketball expert: Is the bj-league’s relevance visibly decreasing while the NBL makes changes?

“The NBL is positioning themselves to be the winners,” the longtime observer said. “Now it may not happen if teams like Kumamoto, Tsukuba, etc., can’t field competitive teams, and or raise/produce enough revenue to stay in business.

“Japan’s basketball landscape is littered with the carcasses of teams that couldn’t afford to keep up with Toyota and Aisin. If those teams go under, then the two-league system will continue,” he continued.

“No chance that NBL teams go to the bj-league. It could have happened after the Phoenix joined (in 2008), but the bj-league has rapidly declined since (Ryukyu’s) first championship season, 2008-09.”

So who’s winning the contest to be more relevant in the long run, the bj-league or the Japan Basketball Association-backed NBL? And is the bj-league morphing into the NBDL’s rival league?

“Which league has a few teams fold first might be the clue to who the winner is, or which teams defect to the other league,” the observer told The Japan Times.

“My first guess is that both leagues continue more or less as they are for a few more years. My next guess is that if a few bj-league teams fold, and a couple of key teams move to the NBL, then while the bj-league might continue, it will only be an alternative to the NBDL, an alternative second division.”

Westover’s perspective: Former Shiga Lakestars coach Al Westover, now working for the Australian College of Basketball, probably knows new Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown better than just about anybody associated with the sport in Japan.

Brown spent time with the Melbourne Tigers as an assistant coach before Westover was appointed to that post in the early 1990s. Before coaching the Lakestars from 2011-13, Westover served as the Tigers head coach for six seasons after a 20-year stint as a Melbourne assistant. So he saw him on the opposing bench for several years, too.

“Yes, I know Brett very well,” Westover told The Japan Times, not needing to point out the many games his Tigers faced in later years against the North Melbourne Giants and Sydney Kings, teams that Brown guided before joining the San Antonio Spurs’ coaching staff in 2002.

“He’s very passionate about his basketball, and it didn’t surprise me that he’s climbed the ladder and is now an NBA head coach. Brett has been with the Spurs for a long time, and has learned their system well, and has great knowledge of what’s necessary to be successful over there.

“His dad was a college coach in the States for Boston University, and he played for Rick Pitino (at BU), thus he’s learned from some good people.”

And, Westover’s view, what prompted the Sixers to offer their coaching vacancy to Brown, who coached Australia at the 2012 London Olympics?

Westover summed it up this way: “Brett is best known for his skill development work with their players in individual sessions. He also has great communication skills, and relates well with today’s players.

“I feel that he’ll do a good job over there, but it’s a rebuilding group that he’s taking over, and it might take a couple of years for them to get back into the playoffs.”

First exhibition: The NBL’s Hyogo Storks defeated the Kyoto Hannaryz 84-52 on Sunday in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture.

It was the summer’s first preseason contest featuring a bj-league team.

Taking talents to Kansai: Center Chris Holm, who averaged a league-high 14.5 rebounds per game in 2012-13 while playing for Niigata, has signed with the Hannaryz, the team announced on Wednesday.

Holm played two seasons for the Albirex, picking up his second and third rebounding titles.

The 28-year-old big man starred for the Sendai 89ers from 2008-11 under Honoo Hamaguchi, who’s now entering his third season as the Kyoto bench boss.

Holm said he expects the Hanaryz to contend for the Western Conference title and a championship this season.

New additions: Forward Edward Morris, who played for the Shinshu Brave Warriors the past two seasons, will be joining the Tokyo Cinq Reves.

The hard-dunking Morris averaged 14.7 points in 52 games last season. He will reunite with his first Shinshu bench boss, Motofumi Aoki, who’s now entering his second season as the Tokyo coach.

In other moves, 206-cm veteran forward Gordon Klaiber, a former Saitama Broncos, Kyoto Hannaryz and Iwate Big Bulls player, has finalized a deal to play for the expansion Aomori Wat’s. The Fairleigh Dickinson University product played in the Greek League last season.

Also, the Rizing Fukuoka have signed 197-cm swingman Michael Dale, whose pro career has included stops in Austria, Hungary, France and Canada.

Last season, the Southern Illinois alum averaged a team-best 17.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 21 games for UBSC Graz, a top-tier squad in the Austrian League.

“I am very thankful for this opportunity and will do my best just to fit in and most importantly help the team win games in any way I can contribute,” Dale said.

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