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Nash’s strong leadership molds Toyama into title contender

by Ed Odeven

Bob Nash’s tenure with the University of Hawaii men’s basketball team came to an end in March 2010 after a three-year run as head coach and a 34-56 overall record in that span. For Nash, that opportunity came after a 23-year stint as an assistant coach at the school.

Nash’s dismissal by the University of Hawaii didn’t mark an end to his long coaching career, but a chance for a new chapter — and in Japan of all places.

The former NBA forward was hired to lead the bj-league’s Saitama Broncos for the 2010-11 season. But the Broncos season came to an abrupt halt after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, and Nash’s reclamation project in Saitama was incomplete. The team went 14-24.

After a season away from coaching, though, he returned to Japan. Nash joined another Eastern Conference team, the Toyama Grouses, with a wonderful one-two punch in forward Ira Brown and shooting guard Masashi Joho. And Nash proved to be the right fit for the Grouses for the 2012-13 season.

Nash guided Toyama to its first winning campaign (35-17 overall, a 10-game improvement over 2011-12) last season and a trip to the playoffs. It was the start of something special that carried over in a big, bold way to 2013-14, the Hokuriku-based club’s eighth season in the upstart circuit.

Toyama (44-10 overall) takes a 13-game winning streak into this weekend’s Final Four at Ariake Colosseum in Tokyo. The regular-season Eastern Conference champion Grouses face the No. 3 Akita Northern Happinets in Saturday’s East final. Tipoff is 2:10 p.m.

Naturally, Nash wouldn’t reveal the entire blueprint of his team’s game plan against the Northern Happinets, but he did provide some relevant details.

In a Monday interview with The Japan Times, he offered these pointers for facing Akita: “Defend the 3-point line. Handle their pick-and-roll offense. Play good transition defense and half-court defense. Slow down their many weapons as best as we can.”

Toyama went 3-1 against Akita in the regular season. But coach Kazuo Nakamura’s Happinets can score points in a hurry; they led the league with 4,692 points in the 52-game regular season.

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After parting ways with the University of Hawaii basketball team, Nash channeled his energy into exploring his options. Saitama proved to be a stepping stone for him to get familiar with the bj-league, and he eventually landed on his feet with a franchise that was an ideal fit.

In Toyama, the talent and the commitment to winning is there. This season, Joho, a prominent player in the bj-league since its inception in 2005, became the first Japanese player in league history to earn regular-season MVP accolades, and Brown’s all-around athleticism and stellar contributions earned him a spot on the league’s Best Five Team this season, too.

Nash, meanwhile, humbly recognizes that his long career in basketball, including as a member of Hawaii’s “Fabulous Five” team in the 1970-71 and 1971-72 seasons, speaks for itself. It’s as if to say that every season is another few lines on his resume.

“After coaching for over 30 years and having been associated with basketball for most of my life, there is little left to prove to anyone,” the energetic 63-year-old Nash told The Japan Times. “I’d be crazy to be doing this for so long if I didn’t have the passion and desire to coach and develop players.

“At this stage in my life I welcomed the challenge and experience of coaching a professional team. I must say that I am blessed to have a great group of players who are accepting of my coaching philosophy.

“At this level, it is about having honest relationships and interactions with the players. My mission each day is to give my best effort to prepare my players for practices and games.”

Indeed, that preparation has paid off. The Grouses have excelled in recent months. They’ve had one losing streak — two games — this season.

“We pride ourselves on shared team defense responsibility,” Nash said. “It’s a team sport, so we apply the team concept on both offense and defense. We try to stay within our comfort zone and not get too high or too low if things aren’t going our way. We stay together and play harder, smarter and more together than our opponents.”

Joho’s 17.4 points per game was the eighth-best average in the league. He’s not afraid to take the big shot, and he often makes the big shot to spark a run or seize momentum from the opposition. Brown’s well-documented stat-stuffing ways — getting plenty of blocks and steals along with assists, rebounds and points — are equally important. The Gonzaga University alum averaged a double-double (16.8 ppg and 10.0 rpg) during the regular season.

Furthermore, the rise of forward Tatsunori Fujie (9.9 ppg) as a steady contributor has provided Nash with another valuable scoring option.

“Fujie has developed into one of our most consistent players as a result of his hard work in the weight room and his tireless effort to improve all phases of his basketball skills,” Nash said of the Fukuoka Prefecture native. “He has transformed from a player who felt the need to shoot every time he touched the ball, to a player who lets the scoring opportunities find him. He is very competitive and is an excellent on-ball defender.”

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Joho and backcourt mate Takeshi Mito add pizzazz to the team’s performance, with stylish highlights on both ends of the court. On the other hand, forward/center Sam Willard, a University of the Pacific product, made his mark as the league’s No. 2 rebounder (12.5 per game) along with 11.2 ppg.

For his team to have a chance to thrive, Willard willingly accepted the responsibility of being asked to do the so-called grunt work.

“Sam makes us better in all phases of the game because of his competitive nature,” Nash observed. “He is aggressive, competitive and he brings that same work ethic everyday to practice. He simply wants to win at everything he attempts.”

He added: “(Willard is) uncomplaining and a tireless rebounder who really works on his game and has truly been a significant reason for our success.”

As one glances at the Toyama stat sheets or watches video of its games, it’s clear that Nash has found a way to make all of the Grouses players hungry to compete and contribute. And that’s a credit to his management style.

For instance, backups Josh Gross and Djibril Thiam, averaging 8.9 and 6.4 ppg, respectively, are not superstars, but have become a key part of the team’s remarkable run.

“Josh Gross was voted our most improved player in one of our recent team meetings,” Nash said. “He is a great teammate and he works very hard at his personal development. DJ (Thiam) is new to our team but he fits our need of a long and athletic forward with the ability to rebound and defend in the post and on the perimeter.

“Both players could play major minutes on any other team, but they accept their roles and their positive contribution helps us to be successful.”

The bj-league Final Four shifts to win-and-advance mode on Saturday. Just one game is all it takes.

Which is why Nash won’t look too far ahead — to a possible championship showdown (or third-place match) against either the Ryukyu Golden Kings or Kyoto Hannaryz on Sunday.

“We will cross this bridge once we get to it,” he concluded. “We never think about future opponents until they are next on the schedule. We always stay focused on the present and the game in front of us.”

Nash’s future may have appeared uncertain in March 2010. But at the present time, it’s clear the Toyama Grouses found the right man to lead the franchise to respectability and a prominent place in Japanese pro basketball.