‘Mr. Basketball’ back on court in new role

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Putting his honorable nickname behind him, Kenichi Sako is beginning a new adventure, though it may not proceed as smoothly as it did when he was a player.

Sako, who was known as “Mr. Basketball” during his glorious career as a player in Japan, is stepping back onto hardwood after a two-year absence.

The 43-year-old former national team point guard will be the inaugural head coach of the Hiroshima Dragonflies, who will join the National Basketball League for the 2014-15 season.

The decision to accept the job wasn’t easy for Sako, as he would have to be away from his family in Yokohama (he has four children). But that was the only obstacle he faced. In fact, Sako, who retired in 2011, was waiting for an opportunity like this.

Over the last two years, Sako has been the general manager for the development of the men’s national team while also serving as a board member of the Japan Basketball Association. Yet the job didn’t really satisfy his passion for the game.

Sako said it was tough trying to improving Team Japan from the executive position he was granted.

“I was in charge of the development (of the national team), but you become discreet about talking to the members of the team,” Sako said in a recent interview with the Japan Times. “But when you are part of it, you don’t have to worry about it.”

Some naysayers wonder how Sako could succeed without any coaching experience at a pro club with, presumably, not much financial support, and that failure could tarnish his colorful career as a player.

For Sako, however, his legacy never factored into the decision to accept the job.

“I never thought I made that myself,” Sako said of his popularity during his heyday. “It was made by other people outside. I don’t consider myself deserving to be called ‘Mr. Basketball’ and I’m not going to take advantage of it for my future career at all.”

The three-time MVP of the JBL (the predecessor of the NBL) understands that the path ahead will be thorny for him and his team. A former member of the Isuzu Giga Cats and Aisin SeaHorses, Sako never played on a pro club. But with the Dragonflies, who are not an industrial team, he’ll have to make an effort to promote the team and try to draw fans to games in addition to developing the team on the court.

Sako pointed to the example of the Link Tochigi Brex, a pro team based in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, which has been one of the most popular teams since coming into the league in 2007.

“The players of Tochigi really have a higher awareness of attracting fans on their own,” Sako said. “That is professionalism. The enthusiasm of their fans is much bigger than others. They’ve worked hard on creating the circumstances on their own and their relationships with their fans are so close. Hopefully, Hiroshima will be a team like that.”

Dragonflies president Nobuaki Ito said that the club would be looking to become a club that’s genuinely embraced by the fans and local communities, not just one that is competitive. And he thinks Sako will be the perfect choice to lead that effort.

Sako was honest when talking about what type of team he will make, because, simply put, he doesn’t know what kind of players he’ll have yet. But since he was given the job last November, Sako has consistently stressed that he’d like to instill a high level of discipline and leadership in his players.

Sako learned those elements under Mototaka Kohama, one of the most illustrious coaches in Japan and a man who he greatly admired while with the then-powerhouse Giga Cats, with whom which he earned seven JBL titles.

Sako admitted that he felt constrained when he began playing under Kohama at the now-defunct Cats, but eventually came to understand that the coach’s stern ways were significant in establishing a basketball team that wins championships.

“I felt like I was trapped in a bird’s cage (under Kohama),” Sako said of being on the disciplined Isuzu team under Kohama. “But through playing for him, I got to know my roles and jobs on the team and that’s a very important thing in basketball.”

Sako insisted that he and the players he’ll eventually have will “make history” for the Dragonflies franchise, and that he’ll need men with that in mind.

“There are talented players in Japan today,” he said. “I don’t know if I can get those talents in the first year, but what we really need is leadership. We want players with leadership.”