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Toyama named new coach of Shiga

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Less than two weeks after a memorable title game, the coaching carousel is moving at warp speed.

The Bambitious Nara announced head coach Koto Toyama’s departure on Tuesday. He was named the Shiga Lakestars bench boss a day later, becoming the Kansai franchise’s third coach in as many seasons.

The 28-year-old Hiroki Fujita, who lasted less than a full season in charge of the Gunma Crane Thunders, taking over after Ryan Blackwell was shown the door in December, has been hired as the first coach of the expansion Fukushima Firebonds. News releases were issued by the Crane Thunders and Firebonds to announce the moves on Wednesday.

The league’s annual draft will be held on Friday. So, in theory, having a coach in place before the draft is beneficial to a team as its front office shapes its roster for the upcoming season.

More coaching changes are expected within the next few days and weeks, and vacancies at Nara and Gunma must now be filled. For the latter squad, management will appoint its fourth coach while entering only its third season. (Fujita, 28, led Gunma to a 10-23 record to close out the season. The Crane Thunders went 13-39, tied for the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference.)

Last week, Takatoshi Ishibashi was let go by the Saitama Broncos after a 5-47 season and replaced by sideline supervisor Kazuaki Shimoji, a former Toyama Grouses coach. Shimoji is Saitama’s 10th head coach since the league’s inaugural 2005-06 campaign.

(None of Shimoji’s predecessors guided the Broncos to a winning record or a playoff berth.)

The championship runnerup Akita Northern Happinets, meanwhile, have reportedly played their last game under 73-year-old Kazuo Nakamura.

The team’s hand-picked successor, Makoto Hasegawa, was a popular player during his schoolboy days at Noshiro Technical High School in Akita Prefecture. For the first three seasons in Happinets history, Hasegawa, a longtime JBL star, was a backup guard while also working in the team’s front office. With much fanfare, he retired at age 42 in May 2013.

Apparently, Nakamura is not ready to retire. Instead, he is poised to become a high school coach in Niigata Prefecture, a league insider told The Japan Times this week.

Fujita played under Nakamura on the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix before joining ex-Phoenix assistant Toyama on the expansion Miyazaki Shining Suns in 2010. Fujita, a Saitama Prefecture native, served two seasons as a Miyazaki assistant. After a season away, he came back to the bj-league in 2013 as Blackwell’s assistant at Gunma.

At age 27, Toyama was handed the reins in Miyazaki. The Shining Suns went 35-67 in his two seasons there. The cash-strapped franchise survived one more season before vanishing from the bj-league.

Toyama led the Ryukyu Golden Kings to a 42-10 record in 2012-13, but was not brought back for a second season in charge. He resurfaced with the Bambitious, who went 19-33 in their first season.

Though Nara started out with a 1-9 record, Toyama continued to make solid adjustments and the team made solid improvements, going 18-24 the rest of the way, including 6-4 over its final 10 games.

The resilient Hokkaido native now takes on his fourth head coaching challenge in as many seasons. (The quintessential coaching vagabond Larry Brown, now the Southern Methodist University mentor, can’t claim that distinction during his colorful ABA, NBA and college coaching career.)

Shiga offered Toyama a two-year contract to replace Chris Boettcher, who in his lone season at the helm led the team to a 27-25 record and its fifth straight trip to the playoffs before taking over as Southern Utah University’s women’s coach.

In a press release issued by the Lakestars, Shiga general manager Shinsuke Sakai noted that Toyama’s mentor is Nakamura, who achieved extraordinary success in the bj-league, including two titles while piloting the Phoenix. Sakai described Toyama as “a young leader full of passion and talent.”

Toyama said it’s his ambition to lead a team full of energy, while striving to win a championship.

As the Firebonds lay the foundation for the future during their inaugural season, Fujita said, “Every day we will work to make a team . . . a united team.”

Revealing that his grandparents are from Fukushima Prefecture, Fujita also stated that a new pro basketball team in Tohoku can be a part of its reconstruction in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, disasters.

Offseason activity: The Japan Basketball Players Association, which was established by NBL players last year, is organizing a charity fundraiser game on June 14 in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture. Among the invited guest players are popular guards Takehiko Shimura and Tsubasa Yonamine of the Sendai 89rs and Iwate Big Bulls, respectively, as well as numerous NBL players.

Feedback: Got a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp