HIRATSUKA, KANAGAWA PREF. – Watching a pure shooter, when the shots are falling like raindrops during a summer storm, is a picture of pure art.
Basketball fans were treated to this image last Sunday at Hiratsuka Gymnasium when Wayne Arnold, an accomplished star in the 24-team bj-league, put on a shooting clinic that ignited the Niigata Albirex BB in a runaway victory over the Yokohama B-Corsairs.
After knocking down two, maybe three picture-perfect 3-pointers, it was obvious to this observer that Arnold had his A-game that day. And there was nothing the B-Corsairs defense could do about it.
He attempted 10 3-pointers, with nine sailing through the bottom of the net as a giddy Kazuo Nakamura, Niigata’s 75-year-old head coach, watched with glee.
It was an astonishing performance. Remarkable.
Arnold finished with a pulse-rising 41 points (four shy of his career-high total in a game in the Austrian League) and re-established himself — to those who had forgotten — as one of two dozen or so players who can really influence the championship stakes in the bj-league’s final season.
The 193-cm shooting guard played a starring role on the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix’s back-to-back title-winning teams in 2010 and 2011. His arrival in Japan in 2010 — he joined the team in February — gave then-coach Nakamura’s club a potent weapon on the perimeter and helped secure the team’s two titles, scoring 18.6 points per game on the second title squad, and a championship runnerup finish in 2011-12.
Fast forward to the start of the current season, after productive time spent with Shiga in the 2012-13 season (13.3 ppg, 41.6 percent 3-point shooting), followed by stops in Angola and with the Iwate Big Bulls over the past two campaigns. Arnold, 31, was a veteran star without a team.
He waited and waited and . . .
Arnold joined the Shiga Lakestars in January on a short-term contract, two weeks before the All-Star Game, making his season debut on Jan. 10. He scored in double figures in his final six games out of eight with Shiga, averaging 12.4 points for the Lakestars. And then he was cut.
Shiga’s loss. Niigata’s gain.
And just in the nick of time.
Or as Arnold put it: “My flight home was for Thursday and we finalized the deal (with Niigata) on Wednesday.”
Was Arnold fired up to have a big weekend in his first series for Niigata?
Did getting released by the Lakestars after just eight games (12.4 ppg), when the club went 5-3, motivate him even more than usual to perform at a high level?
“Yes, it actually did,” Arnold said, responding to my inquiry.
He then spoke at length about starting over again only weeks after his return to Japan.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever been released from a team,” he told me, “and I have a great history in this league, and I felt like I was kind of disrespected because the teams around the league, these guys know me. They know I come up big in the clutch. I play big against the good teams, so yeah, it definitely added fuel to the fire.
“It definitely gave me extra motivation to win a championship and to definitely prove that I’m still able to do the things that I’ve always done.”
Arnold admits a Nakamura-led team is a good fit for him because of the team’s style of play.
He described it this way: “I like his style of play. He plays aggressive defense. He makes sure everybody shares the ball. He makes sure the ball moves, and we get a good rhythm on offense and on defense, and the teams that I’ve played on that have been successful throughout my career, that’s the type of basketball that we played. So it fits right into who I am as a person and who I am as a player.”
Arnold embraces old-school basketball values and says the sport has lost its team-first concept as individuals have gained fame and glory.
“Over the years basketball has changed a bit, trickling down from the NBA. They are more focused on the individual and not the team, and that has changed the dynamic of basketball,” said Arnold, named Mr. Georgia Basketball (state player of the year) as a high school senior in 2002 by the Atlanta Tipoff Club. The annual award has been presented to a number of future NBA standouts such as Shareef Abdur-Rahim (1994, ’95) and a pair of No. 1 overall picks Kwame Brown (2001) and Dwight Howard (2004).
Arnold was just getting warmed up.
“Then you have teams like the Golden State Warriors, like the San Antonio Spurs and the Atlanta Hawks — teams like this that come in and beat the teams that have the big individual stars,” he told me. “Even though Golden State has a big star (Stephen Curry), they still play the game as a team, and they still play great team defense, and they just build off of that. You have a guy that has amazing skills, so he’s going to shine, but I feel like that’s the proper way to play basketball, and I think we lost that over the years because we are glorifying the individual.”
After helping Berkmar High in the Atlanta metro region capture consecutive state titles in 2000 and 2001, Arnold began his college career at the University of Georgia. He then spent a year at Los Angeles City College, earned JUOC All-American honors and was named California JUCO co-player of the year. He transferred to Tennessee State and made a solid impact for the Ohio Valley Conference school in his final two seasons.
Since middle school, Arnold has worn No. 34 as homage to Ray Allen. It’s because he idolized 10-time NBA All-Star, the league’s all-time leader in regular season and postseason 3-pointers made.
Did you want to emulate him? I asked Arnold.
“Yeah, it kind of set a tone,” he replied.
Allen’s starring role as Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s 1998 basketball film “He Got Game” strengthened his fondness for Allen’s smooth style of play.
“I like to let the game come to me,” he said, while revealing that some hoop fans at his high school called him Jesus Shuttlesworth. “I don’t like to force the issue unless it’s necessary. . . . If you move the ball and work with your teammates, then everybody will have the opportunity to score.
“When it comes down to we have to make the last shot, and I’m the go-to guy, then I’ll become a little bit more aggressive. Or if I feel like we need a basket, then I’ll become a little bit more aggressive. … I feel like if you play basketball the right way, then things will go your way.”
Besides embracing the right way to play the game, Arnold has relied on his patented jump shot to earn a living.
He credits longtime mentor Keith Neal, a respected Columbus, Ohio, youth program leader and coach, for planting the seeds of success.
“He (Neal) told me that as long as you can shoot the ball you’ll always have a job,” Arnold recalled. “He said it doesn’t matter what system a team is running, it doesn’t matter what the dynamic of the team is, if you can make open shots, you’ll always have a job.”
“He was very instrumental in a lot of guys’ career.”
Among the guys who benefited from Neal’s guiding hand are ex-NBA players Michael Redd and Gary Trent.
During Arnold’s formative years, he developed into a future pro while visiting family each summer in Columbus, Ohio, throughout his junior high and high school years. Neal has been a father figure and hoop instructor for countless players for decades, at J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center, which is located in the Hilltop neighborhood in the city’s west side.
Neal was always available to help Arnold work on his game. And give him a chance to compete.
“If I wasn’t in the gym with Keith, I was on the blacktop with Unk (my uncle),” he told Hoop Scoop. “During my younger years … when we’d have open runs, I’d always play against older guys. And they don’t care if you’re a kid or not, you have to earn your keep. They will talk trash to you until you either crying or you shut them up.
“Aside from the open runs, he’d have me in individual workouts with pros or high-level college players. Those situations have made me grow tough skin and an instinct to come up big in pressure situations. Even now when I visit Columbus, I can count on Keith for a workout. Anytime I’ve ever called him, he’s opened the doors to the gym and has gladly rebounded for me. And if he was too busy to rebound, he’d have a good high school player get in a workout with me.”
In written reflections on Arnold’s time in Columbus, Neal, now 62, dished out the following insight: “Wayne had an intense desire to be successful. He was willing to spend extra time to succeed on the court which is evident by his current status.
“Wayne combined a forceful drive and motivation with genuine concern for his peers, family, friends and community. He is unselfish, is a team player, and gets along extremely well with others. . . . Wayne is a person of great character, flawless ethics, and innate honesty. Wayne displays greatness without effort or direction; he is truly a natural.
“As a mentor and role model, he was ever-encouraging young people to be their best. Wayne would return to the center in the summers and host skills training with our young people. His goal was to help those players get to the next level. He communicated the need for goals and hard work to achieve them. We have five students that went on to college as a result of his mentorship.”
Arnold’s ambition has served him well in a pro career that began in 2006. Recognizing that he needs to work on his game to grow his game, Arnold has taken summer workouts very seriously throughout his career. He’s a fixture in the Atlanta-area summer hoops scene, focusing on one-hour speed and agility workouts four days a week, followed by weights or weighted mobility exercises.
These activities, of course, are geared to help him withstand the physical rigors of playing against some stiff competition.
“I fluctuate between playing pickup with exclusively NBA guys and a select few overseas guys and maybe a college guy or two,” he said. “Or strictly overseas guys and college guys. Or I’ll just get in the gym with me and another guy or two to get shots up and do some skill work.”
Jarrett Jack (Nets), Louis Williams (Lakers), Josh Smith (Rockets), Anthony Morrow(Thunder), Derrick Favors (Jazz) are among the current NBA players that Arnold has tested his skills against in recent offseasons. He’s also gone up against Ryukyu Golden Kings star Anthony McHenry and other Japan-based pros.
Individuals who have accomplished great things in the bj-league say without hesitation that Arnold is a fierce competitor who is only concerned about one statistic: the final score.
Former Phoenix teammate Jermaine Green, a two-time title winner here, gave Arnold the ultimate compliment, telling Hoop Scoop, “He’s all about winning and meshed in right away with the team when he joined Hamamatsu. He’s not just a shooter, he does more than just that. And he’s a winner.”
Ex-Hamamatsu teammate Wendell White, who’s now with the Sendai 89ers, summed up Arnold’s performance by giving the following descriptions that immediately come to mind to describe Arnold: “clutch 3-point shooter, great scorer, competitor, and champion.”
Osaka Evessa coach Dai Oketani, who guided Arnold last season in Iwate’s only Final Four campaign, said, “Wayne knows how to play his role. He is really smart and unselfish. He can make his teammates better.”
Rizing Fukuoka star forward Josh Peppers called Arnold “one of the best shooters this league has seen.”
With two bj-league titles on his resume, Arnold has secured a permanent place in the sport’s annals here. He knows he has nothing left to prove in Japan, but is as hungry as ever to clinch another title in the bj-league’s 11th and final season, with the launch of the 45-team, three-division B. League set for the fall.
“For me, it’s not necessarily because it’s the final year of the league,” he concluded. “For me, I’m extremely hungry. First of all, for being released. Second of all, me and Kazuo are reunited. Third, I feel we play the proper style of basketball.”