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Kabaya looks past glory of title team, forward to new season

by Ed Odeven

Masayuki Kabaya played a starring role in leading the Yokohama B-Corsairs to a championship in their second season in the bj-league.

That was in May at Ariake Colosseum, where he grabbed Final Four MVP honors after a 35-point championship game masterpiece in which he buried all five of his 3-point attempts against the Rizing Fukuoka.

That almost seems like ancient history now.

The B-Corsairs appear to be a shell of their former shelf. They are a new-look squad, starting all over again under new coach Michael Katsuhisa, who was ex-coach Reggie Geary’s assistant and interpreter the past two seasons.

Two seasons of high standards.

Two seasons, two Final Fours.

A remarkable feat for any new team in any pro sports league.

That’s what the B-Corsairs accomplished under Geary, who’s now the bench boss for the Chiba Jets, the team that defected from the bj-league after only two seasons to the NBL, the relaunched JBL.

The franchise’s third season begins with a slew of big questions, including:

*Will the team find a way to win consistently without departed star playmaker Draelon Burns and high-flying Thomas Kennedy, Kabaya’s tag-team partners in the potent Big Three?

*Will Kabaya be forced to try to do too much as his new teammates get accustomed to their roles?

*And will Katsuhisa, a former Osaka Evessa player, make a successful transition from assistant to bench boss?

To his credit, Kabaya doesn’t shy away from speaking about the formidable challenge his team faces as it attempts to remain a force to be reckoned with in the 11-team Eastern Conference, which includes expansion squad Aomori Wat’s this season.

“Honestly, it’s not going to be an easy season for us,” Kabaya said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “We need to step up, we need to grow up, and I don’t feel like we are a team that can (contend) for a championship for the time being.

“Obviously, we need to step up and grow up, and hopefully in the end we can grab a championship.”

The revamped B-Corsairs roster — minus Burns (who’s currently out of the league), departed frontcourt standouts Faye Pape Mour and Kennedy (now with Shimane) and Shawn Malloy (reunited with Kennedy on the Susano Magic roster) and backup guard Minoru Kimura (now with Iwate) — includes big man Wayne Marshall, whose season came to an abrupt halt last winter while playing for the Shinshu Brave Warriors due to a leg injury; power forward Marquise Gray, who was an important interior presence for Niigata and then Chiba after changing squads last season; small forward Ryuichi Horikawa, whose leadership qualities caught the attention of his former boss, Toyama coach Bob Nash, last season; and swingman Omar Reed, who played for the Boston Celtics in the NBA Summer League in Orlando.

What’s more, the franchise underwent an ownership change only a few weeks after claiming the title. (Financial problems forced ownership changes to be made.)

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Speaking to Kabaya, a Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture native, about what the B-Corsairs have accomplished and what they hope to do despite the odds that are stacked against them, it’s clear that he’s moved beyond the championship euphoria of May. He’s ready to focus on the 2013-14 season.

“It was great to win the championship last year, but last year was last year,” Kabaya said. “We put it behind us. This season is this season, so we’ve got a new challenge. So hopefully we will be able to play like a champion this season.”

The 31-year-old Yokohama captain proved to be one of the league’s elite perimeter shooters last season, exemplified by his electrifying performance against Fukuoka. To those who didn’t know about Kabaya’s skills, he raised his profile in a big way in May.

So has bigger fame and notoriety increased his desire to be a great player?

“As for getting fame, I appreciate that, but how I play is how I play,” he said. “It’s not going to change, basically. But for this season how the team wants me to play is a little different, so I just play as they ask me to play, executing plays.”

Remember this: Kabaya thrived in the rapid-paced offense concocted by the fiery Geary, a former NBA guard. But Kabaya has also displayed his smarts for the youthful organization since Day One as a mentor to younger teammates and a calming influence in pressure-packed moments on the court.

Kabaya thrived alongside 2011-12 regular-season MVP Justin Burrell, and when the team formed its championship nucleus around the vaunted Big Three for 2012-13, he was equally important.

“Last year, we had a lot of players that played well outside,” Kabaya noted, referring specifically to Burns and Big Three. But Kenji Yamada remains on the club to run the point and guards Seiji Kono and Satoshi Hisayama made important strides over the past two seasons as backups.

The B-Corsairs are a work in progress as they make preparations for their opening series of the season next weekend against the visiting Shinshu Brave Warriors. And if they are going to remain a title contender, Kabaya believes interior strength must come from Marshall, Gray and others.

“This year, we have good inside players, so we are going to (execute) more simpler plays like inside-out, high-and-low, that kind of stuff,” Kabaya said. He summed it up as “fundamental basketball.”

Equally significant will be the adjustment Katsuhisa makes, changing from his role as Geary’s right-hand man to sideline supervisor. And despite Geary’s NBA background, Kabaya sees similarities in the way the two men approach the job.

“Honestly speaking, I haven’t felt much of a difference between the two guys,” he said. “What we do is pretty much the same as we did last year.”

“You look at the two guys and they are pretty much the same (on the court). They are passionate on the sidelines, they have high basketball IQs, and they studied the game a lot. So I’ll say these guys are pretty similar in positive (ways).”

There will be many ups and downs during the 52-game season. The B-Corsairs will need to find a new identity under Katsuhisa, a Tokyo native whose father is Japanese and mother is American. But Kabaya remains an anchor on the court, a player with championship credentials to steer his teammates in the right direction.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

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Feedback: Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp