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Happinets’ Boykin reflects on season

by Ed Odeven

In his many decades in the game, Kazuo Nakamura tinkered with an up-tempo style of basketball he wanted his teams to play. And in recent years, it often involved several of his players taking quick 3-point shots as often as possible.

Nakamura’s run-and-gun style produced consecutive bj-league championships in 2009-10 and 2010-11, when the inimitable bench boss led the Hamamatsu Higashishimikawa Phoenix. He then took his system to his hometown Akita Northern Happinets for the 2011-12 campaign.

This season, Nakamura’s Happinets employed a lethal offensive combination of power and finesse: high-scoring options on the perimeter and in the paint.

Perhaps, surprisingly, power forward Ruben Boykin convinced Nakamura that his skills would be better utilized if he wasn’t asked to be a gunner.

“At the beginning of the season, he told me he wanted me to take a lot of shots,” Boykin recalled during a phone conversation with Hoop Scoop on Friday.

“I said I don’t have to score like that,” was the way Boykin responded to Nakamura’s instructions. The Northern Arizona University alum told the veteran coach that the team’s scoring options, especially guard Yuki Togashi, forward Richard Roby and center Chas McFarland, a difficult 215-cm matchup for any team in the league, were the Akita players who should get the ball first.

Boykin, who turns 29 on June 20, became the team’s glue guy.

Or as he put it, “I was basically like the guy to fill in the puzzle.”

He explained that in some games he’d pick up the scoring slack (nine regular-season games with 20 or more points) and rebounding (back-to-back 20-board games on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, for instance).

More than anything, Boykin was consistent, exuding confidence and delivering energetic efforts at both ends of the floor. He averaged 13.9 points and a league-best 13.5 rebounds during the regular season.

He knocked down 70 3-pointers and dished out 183 assists (with only 93 turnovers) with 52 steals.

It all added up to a banner season for Boykin, who completed his collegiate career in 2007, and the Happinets, who went 40-12 and secured the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed for the playoffs.

“He was probably the most accepting coach I’ve had since high school,” Boykin said of Nakamura. “My coach in college (Mike Adras) was very good, but this coach, he understood me and he let me play the way I wanted to play.”

* * *

The Happinets went 5-0 in the preseason and rattled off 12 straight victories to open the regular season. They were 17-2, dropped two straight and then ran off another streak of 12 more wins. They picked up their fifth loss on Feb. 9; they had 29 wins at the time. (The Saitama Broncos, on the other hand, won five games the entire season.)

Akita made a spirited run for a championship, but came up short in the finale against the Ryukyu Golden Kings on May 25, losing 103-89.

“I don’t feel like we lost to a team that was way better than us,” Bokyin told Hoop Scoop.

“We had some dramatic wins and some big highs and big lows,” the California native added. “My favorite game was against Iwate, when we knew we were going to the Final Four (an 82-59 triumph on May 11 in Game 2 of the East semifinals).

The fans’ support on the road struck a chord with Boykin.

“I’ve played in a lot of games and played in front of big crowds,” he said. “But I’ve never played where the whole section came into a visiting gym, had on all pink and took over the gym. It was unbelievable. That was probably the most fun I’ve had playing in that game. . . . And singing the (team) song with (the fans), I didn’t even know the words.

“The fans made the season for me.”

A day after the final, the team held a dinner for Nakamura at his favorite Akita restaurant, which specializes in barbecue dishes.

“Everybody was happy and we had a really good time,” Boykin said of the dinner.

Our conversation quickly turned to the fact that the 73-year-old Nakamura’s final planned game in charge of the Happinets was held a day before the team dinner.

“He has more energy than any 70-plus-year-old that I know. . . . He has a lot of knowledge about the game,” Boykin told me.

“He could definitely still coach if he wants to, or if somebody hires him.”

* * *

Since leaving NAU, a Big Sky Conference school, Boykin’s pro career has included stops in Poland, Greece and Italy. Motivated by determination and intense concentration on the court, he set a lofty goal for the 2013-14 season, his first in Japan.

“I said before I came to Japan I wanted to win the rebounding title,” Boykin revealed. “It’s always been a big goal of mine. I feel like certain things in the game you can control — effort, enthusiasm. I felt since I can control that, I can go for the rebounding (title). I usually end up with a high number.

“I came over here to win it, and it’s crazy that it happened.”

Indeed, Boykin made his mark with the Happinets. He was an indispensable part of the team, and one of the best all-around players in the league. His return to the Happinets for the 2014-15 season would provide a pillar of strength in the low post and one of the building blocks for another run at the Final Four.

Boykin said he’ll take some time to discuss his plans for next season with his wife and agent. He may return to Europe to continue his career.

The bj-league’s use of synthetic SportCourt — instead of standard wood floors — at many gymnasiums is disliked by every player this reporter has spoken to about the issue over the past eight seasons.

The constant complaint is that the synthetic surface puts a greater physical toll on the body than wood courts.

“The (SportCourt) floor really hurt my knees,” Boykin said, adding that the surface is used for “too many games.

“And for as many games that we play on back-to-back (days) and with less than a 24-hour recovery time between games, it’s tough to deal with that.”

* * *

Recognizing that teammate and rising star Togashi had a profound impact on the team’s success this season, Boykin, without hesitation, gave his unfiltered opinion of the 20-year-old point guard’s performance.

“Maybe Yuki would’ve been MVP had we won the East (title),” Boykin offered, referring to the regular-season accolade.

According to Boykin, what has transformed Togashi into a star at such a young age is his work ethic.

“He works extremely hard and whenever he gets in the lane, he finishes extremely well,” Boykin said, adding that Togashi’s workout routine after practice included “always working on his floater with one of our big men trying to block his shot.”

“He can knock down the mid-range shot and shoot the 3. He has a great handle. . . . He is fearless and he has a focus,” said Boykin.

While competing on the court, Boykin said Togashi “has a face that looks like, ‘I don’t care how aggressive you are, I am going to kill you.’ That look (shows) that fearlessness about him.”

“Every day in practice, this guy was an animal,” Boykin said, adding, “I really feel he is going to be successful in his career.”

The rebounding champ said he believes Togashi has the ability to play in the NBA in the future.

* * *

Though Boykin had high praise for Happinets fans and the team camaraderie the players enjoyed, his opinion of the bj-league playoff format can be categorized as the polar opposite.

As many players and coaches have stated over the past several years in conversations with The Japan Times, the league’s mini-game tiebreaker (10-minute period, if necessary, after Game 2 for the first two playoff rounds) ought to be scrapped, he insisted.

“I think guys work too hard to play two games and then a 10-minute game,” to decide the series, he said.

Furthermore, the compact format of the Final Four takes away a team’s opportunity to make adjustments in a scheduled rematch against the same foe.

For example, Ryukyu guard Ryuichi Kishimoto, who was named the playoff MVP, had 34 points in the title game. That was totally unexpected, Boykin admitted.

“The game that Kishimoto had was incredible,” Boykin said. “We didn’t scout this guy. We hadn’t played against Okinawa. . . . They were in the championship before and they knew what to expect. We didn’t know what to expect.

“We were more prepared for Toyama and concerned about them.”

A season of great accomplishments for Boykin and the Akita Northern Happinets didn’t have the happy Hollywood ending they wanted, but the team became one of the league’s elite franchises. And that’s a quantum leap any young franchise without a history of great feats would want to make.