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Aomori’s Ocitti appreciates fans’ unbridled support for first-year franchise

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Japan Times features periodic interviews with players in the bj-league. Stanley Ocitti of the Aomori Wat’s is the subject of this week’s profile

Position: power forward/center
Age: 33
Ht: 203 cm
Wt: 104 kg
Hometown: Cambridge, Massachusetts
College: Binghamton (New York); he played at the University of Connecticut before transferring to Binghamton.

Noteworthy: Ocitti’s professional basketball career has included stops in Australia, Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands and the relaunched ABA. He suited up for Cape Holland Ben Helder in the Dutch League during his first rookie season, 2003-04. He played for the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix in 2008-09 and for the Akita Northern Happinets during the 2011-12 campaign. Last season, Ocitti played for Worcester in the British Basketball League. … He made his 2013-14 season debut on Dec. 14 for the Wat’s, scoring 29 points in 27 minutes in a one-point loss to the Shimane Susanoo Magic. He’s averaging 9.8 points and 6.0 rebounds in 30 games. The Wat’s are 24-24 through last weekend and are in sixth place in the 11-team Eastern Conference. …

A scouting report posted at rhconsultancy.com describes him this way: “Ocitti is a very strong inside player, that is well known for his fighter instincts. Is a monster on the boards at both ends of the floor, and fights for every rebound and loose ball. Ocitti is a very smart player that doesn’t make many mistakes and never forces shots. Is a capable scorer. Handles the ball very well. A good defensive player that can keep his man out of scoring position, and his presence in the paint changes lots of shots.”

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First off, looking at where the Aomori Wat’s are for a first-year franchise, vying for a playoff spot in an 11-team conference, what does this feat, in and of itself, say about the team’s commitment to excellence and lofty expectations from within the organization?

It speaks volumes about the organization and their high expectations from the office staff to the players. I think everybody’s mindset is focused on winning and establishing an organization that consistently excels.

What would say are Wat’s coach Koju Munakata’s chief strengths as the day-to-day leader of your basketball team?

I think this coach has made it a priority to focus on “switching your mindset,” a term he has used, I believe, almost every game since I have been part of the organization. By this, I mean that he acknowledges what is working, and when something is not working on the court, then he keys in on the players and stresses learning from the current situation. Then he encourages them to re-focus and switch their mindset accordingly. So, his strengths are in giving players the confidence and freedom offensively, but also he is adamant about playing good defense.

In your first game in an Aomori uniform, the aforementioned 29-point effort on 12-for-15 shooting, what did that game feel like for you while it was happening?

It felt really good to be back on the court after almost eight months of not playing competitively. I think I was just grateful for the moment and trying to enjoy every minute on the court. At the end of the day I would have preferred a team win over a personal good game.

If you were sitting courtside as an analyst, doing a broadcast of an Aomori game, how would you describe Stanley Ocitti the basketball player?

Competitor, team player, all-around player, high basketball IQ, good sports man, dedicated, willing to do anything to win.

Imagine for a minute … the shot clock is winding down and your team needs a basket, the ball is in your hands … What is your go-to move? What shot is the one you have the most confidence in?

If I am in the post, then I like to face up and jab step to get my defender to give me some space then rise up and use a Timmy-D (Tim Duncan) patented bank shot. That being said, I hope that players reading this won’t be scouting me too hard. I have three go-to moves, so I will just give you one.

Tell me about your upbringing and where you lived growing up. And while living near Boston, how much influence did the Celtics and the intense Boston sports culture have on you growing up?

I was born in Kampala, Uganda. We left the country when I was 8 to move to Cologne, Germany, where my father was working as a journalist at the time. After two years in Germany, we moved again, this time to the Netherlands where we lived for eight years before once more relocating to Cambridge, Mass. Obviously, upon moving to Massachusetts I became a huge Celtics supporter and as an avid basketball fan I felt Boston was perfect because its rich tradition allowed me to improve my game.

This was especially true over the summer when I would find out what summer leagues and tournaments Celtics players would be playing in. I would make sure to get in that league or tournament to get a shot at playing against the best.

What makes forward Gordon Klaiber such an indispensable part of the Aomori rotation? Similarly, what makes Abdullahi Kuso such an integral part of it?

Gordon just does it all. From rebounding to scoring to being a team player and having great b-ball sense and savvy. I think his key strength is his outside shot, but he is such a multi-dimensional player which makes him really, really hard to guard. I definitely know because I have to guard him every day at practice.

Kuso is just a warrior on the boards and he is always productive offensively and defensively in the paint. I think a lot of people sleep on his mid-range jumper which I hope he starts using more of. On a whole, they are both amazing players and one important and great fact that both of them have brought to the team is consistency. That being said, I think we all know, as players on this team, that we have a role to play within this team. For example, Anthony Kent has been a vital part to this team in what he brings on the court as well as off the court.

Swingman Makoto Sawaguchi had played for two Tohoku expansion teams in their first season, Akita in 2010-11 and his hometown Iwate club in 2011-12. Now, a veteran, but still just 22, how he is he growing into a leader who know what it takes to succeed on a team without a long history of success or failure?

Sometimes I forget how young Makoto is. He is definitely a player who is wise beyond his years. I think he is very passionate on the court and he has used that passion as a way to lead. Guys feed off of his energy. Watching some of the things he does, you can’t help but get energized and cheer. As a player, you want to be on the court and be part of it. I think he is going to have even more amazing moments throughout his career and he is just going to keep getting better and better.

Yuki Kitamuki is coming off a season in which he was named the league’s Most Improved Player while with the Saitama Broncos. On a day-in, day-out basis, is there a sense — do you think — that last season’s accomplishments gave Kitamuki never-wavering belief in his abilities as a player and key contributor?

I think so, I think Yuki is one of the top Japanese players in this league and he has really stepped up his game and shown that. Just as I said about Kuso and Klaiber, Yuki is consistent. If he is “in the zone,” then I feel for the person who has to defend him. Also, he definitely puts in the extra work after practice as well as being in the weight room and just taking care of his body.

In Aomori Prefecture, the Wat’s are the first pro team among Japan’s big three pro leagues — NPB, J.League (top division) and bj-league. That said, how passionate and loyal are the local fans to your team? How excited have they been, in your view, to be a part of something bigger than themselves — community pride, for example?

The fans have been amazing. I honestly think we have one of the best supporters in the league. Their support and enthusiasm obviously carries over onto the court. As a player it is always great to get that extra energy from the crowd. The local fans definitely go above and beyond in supporting the players and the rest of the organization.

With an 18-6 home record, Aomori has obviously found its comfort zone at home. Has the team greatly missed the locals’ support while playing in away games (6 wins, 18 defeats)?

I think the team has missed the support of the fans in away games. However, we have been growing as a team. So we are becoming better at winning on the road.

Journalists — myself included — like to make comparisons in articles. So, let me ask this: Which current or former NBA player(s) do you feel your game is most similar to?

That is a hard question. I would have to say that I try to learn from different players. I try to replicate a particular move a certain player does, but as far as my game is concerned I feel that I have my own unique style. For example, I love Tim Duncan’s ability to shoot the bank shot. I feel that I have tried to incorporate his shot into my game style as best as possible. There are so many great players out there but for the most part I think every basketball player is unique. I love what makes players different.

Who’s your favorite basketball player of all time? Why?

Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, is up there. Just his smooth moves, his defense, his passing abilities and his winning mentality. He was exciting to watch, especially during the playoffs. There are a lot of other great players out there, but right now if I would have to choose I would say Hakeem Olajuwon.

After taking MBA courses at Worcester last season while in the BBL, how do you hope/plan to use that academic knowledge in the future? Is there a specific goal or career you have in mind for after your playing days are finished?

I really am grateful I got a chance to get my MBA while playing in the BBL in England. During the program, I focused my dissertation on sponsorship within the basketball industry in the U.K. I developed and implemented a targeted marketing strategy to improve sponsorship within the Worcester Wolves organization. Even in that one-year time frame I was able to increase interest in sponsorship dramatically. I hope to utilize the skills that I have developed throughout this process in the sports marketing industry in the future.

What do you consider the biggest selling point of the bj-league to potential new fans or sponsors?

If marketed right, I believe that the bj-league can be very successful in creating an environment that is fun and exciting and that would attract fans. Fun and excitement prior to the game, during the game, and even after the game, would draw more of a crowd. Sponsors want something in return for their sponsorship. A sponsorship is a relationship that benefits both organizations. A gym filled to capacity at every home game will look very appealing to potential sponsors who would want to market their product.

What’s one thing you’d like the bj-league’s board of directors change to make it a better league?

I would like the board of directors to take a closer look at the officiating in the league. I know a lot of players complain about the officiating, but I would have to say that there could be a huge improvement in that area.

Who is/was the most difficult defensive assignment for you in the bj-league? Why?

There are a lot of great players in the bj-league that are very hard to guard. I think one of my toughest defensive assignments had to be Justin Burrell when he played for the Yokohama B-Corsairs. He was just so athletic and powerful and he had a very aggressive mentality towards the game. He never gave up on any possession, offensively or defensively. Great player and it was fun trying to shut him down.

What have been your biggest thrills — perhaps an unforgettable game or moment or shot — as a high school, college and pro basketball player?

Honestly, there are too many to mention. One of my biggest thrills was making it to the finals in the Hungarian league in 2008 with my team at the time, Kormend. The game itself was definitely memorable but the fans just took the whole day to another level. Firstly, they rushed the court after we won. Secondly, later in the parking lot the celebrations were still going on and the fans would not let the team leave. They wanted us to be a part of the celebrations. They were so thankful that some people were even crying because they were so happy. We stayed in that parking lot for at least four hours before we were able to finally leave.

Off the court, what do you most enjoy doing during your leisure time in Japan?

Off the court, I like to spend time with my amazing girlfriend, relax, read, catch up on world events, listen to music, and just get out in nature and explore. Aomori has had more than its share of snow, but I am happy now that spring is right around the corner and most of the snow has melted. I am looking forward to getting out some more and seeing what the rest of Aomori has to offer.

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Editor’s note: Archived stories in this long-running interview series can be found here: www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/column/one-on-one-with/