Foreign coaches making impact in revamped NBL

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

While the National Basketball League of Japan is essentially the rebranded Japan Basketball League, there’s one distinguishing aspect that is different from before — it’s a foreign coach-filled league.

Currently, nine of the 12 teams have foreign bench bosses in the NBL, which began under its new name this season. This is a notable change that would not have happened in the conservative, corporate team-led JBL era, which ended last year (The NBL’s rival circuit, the bj-league, has consistently had many foreign coaches since its inception in 2005, including former NBA sideline supervisors Bob Hill and Bill Cartwright in recent years). In the final JBL season, four out of the eight teams had non-Japanese heads.

The nine are: Donald Beck of the Toyota Motors Alvark (United States, 38-8 team record through Sunday), Reggie Geary of the Chiba Jets (U.S., 15-31), Antonio Lang of the Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Dolphins (U.S., 23-23), Danny Yoshikawa of the Hyogo Storks (U.S., 6-40), Donte’ Hill of the Tsukuba Robots (U.S., 8-38), Juan Manuel Hurtado Perez of the Levanga Hokkaido (Spain, 27-19), Zeljko Pavlicevic of the Wayakayama Trians (Croatia, 34-12), Tim Lewis of the Hitachi Sunrockers (Britain, 18-28), and Antanas Sireika of the Link Tochigi Brex (Lithuania, 28-18).

Six of the nine are in their first seasons with their respective clubs, and three of the six are in their first seasons in Japan. Geary and Pavlicevic were previously at the helm in the bj-league for the Yokohama B-Corsairs and Shimane Susanoo Magic, respectively, and Hill was the head coach for the Daytrick Tsukuba in the JBL2 last year.

On the opening day of the league, there were 10 foreign coaches overall. American Norman de Silva was let go by the Kumamoto Volters at the end of last month, being replaced by Japanese Shinji Tomiyama, who served as an assistant under De Silva after stints as a bj-league head coach with Iwate and Chiba, the latter before the team defected to the NBL before this season.

But the figure should not actually be so eye-opening given that Japanese basketball still has a long way to catch up with the world’s best. That can also be said coaching-wise. At this point, Japan is more of a student rather than a teacher, so it’s quite natural to import better coaches from the outside.

“I think it’s a smart thing to do and a right way you go about it, when you are trying to grow your game,” said Geary, who guided Yokohama to a bj-league championship last year in the franchise’s second season. He was also the 2011-12 bj-league Coach of the Year.

“To bring all these into the mix and see what’s working . . . it’s like any other industry. When you try to grow something, you go outside of your area to bring in qualified people.”

And as the game has globalized, the U.S., the motherland of the sport, isn’t the sole option for Japanese teams to look for coaches. In fact, although Americans form the majority, the NBL has also brought in Europeans.

Having such an international mix in head coaching positions is not so rare globally.

“The Mexican top league has a lot of South American and Spanish head coaches,” Levanga’s Perez said. “Some countries in the Mideast, such as Qatar and Jordan, have a lot of Serbian coaches.”

Toyota’s Beck, who’s in his fourth season with the club, said the circumstances are “very normal” according to his past experience.

“All the foreign countries that I have coached in — Belgium, Holland and Germany — had many different coaches from other countries,” said Beck, who led TBB Trier to a pair of German Cup titles and won the 2011-12 JBL championship with Toyota. “Basketball is a global game and the game has grown in many areas.”

But not just Japanese players and coaches benefit from having these non-Japanese mentors — foreign coaches can also obtain valuable lessons from others.

Asked if he has learned from other coaches, including foreigners, the Storks’ Yoshikawa replied “absolutely” without hesitation.

“You play Hokkaido, (Perez) does a great job. He’s coming from Spain, Spain has great basketball,” said Yoshikawa, who previously worked under former NBA player Rex Walters as an assistant at the University of San Francisco.

“(Sireika’s) Lithuania is one of the best basketball countries in the world. These are the places I used to go for basketball, recruit the young players.”

Said Beck: “Real good coaches are always learning, so it is always good to see what other teams do and how they handle different situations that come up during the course of a game or season.”

Wakayama’s Pavlicevic, who was the head coach for Japan from 2003-06, including the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship, insists that having diversity in coaching helps develop the game.

“We certainly have more foreign coaches (than before),” said Pavlicevic, who led two different clubs (Cibona Zagreb, Split) to Euroleague titles and also guided Shimane to postseason appearances in each of the franchises’s first three seasons before parting ways with the team last spring.

“I think this is a good situation for Japanese basketball as it has so many different people. That’s eventually going to make its game better.”

Meanwhile, Toshiba Brave Thunders’ Takuya Kita, one of the three Japanese head coaches in the NBL, is another who welcomes the opportunity to be able to pick up knowledge from coaches from around the world. But at the same time, he’s aware that the chances for other Japanese to get offered head coaching jobs are diminishing.

“It’s certainly positive for us to get knowledge from those who are from other countries,” said Kita, who has guided the Brave Thunders to the league’s best record (39-7). “But in terms of developing Japanese coaches, I’m not sure (if that’s good).

“It wouldn’t be fun if all the coaches were foreigners, would it?”

Notes: Lang has been in Japan for the longest continuous time among the current foreign coaches. A former member of NCAA title-winning Duke University, Lang became the head coach of the Nagoya-based Mitsubishi club before the 2010-11 season after a nine-year stint as a player and assistant with the team.

Sireika was head coach for the Lithuania national team between 2001 and 2006. With him at the helm, the team won the EuroBasket title in 2003 and finished fourth at the Athens Olympics in 2004, falling shy of a medal with a loss to the U.S.). Lithuania placed seventh at worlds in Japan in 2006.