Mototaka Kohama leaves behind a trail of memories with those who knew him well or casually crossed paths with him during his decades-long involvement in basketball.
After the Godfather of Japanese basketball’s death on Jan. 12 at age 84 after a battle with cancer, those memories sprang up again for many individuals.
There were decades of games — some wins and losses stand out more than others — hard discipline and the teacher-pupil relationships that helped set the stage for 21st century basketball in Japan, too.
For instance, take Toshi Sato, the current coach of the Hakuoh University women’s basketball squad. Sato’s friendship with Kohama, who oversaw the Japan men’s national team, including at the 1998 FIBA World Championship in Greece, and led the Isuzu Giga Cats to national prominence in both the JBL and annual Emperor’s Cup competitions, continued until the legendary mentor’s last days.
Sato also happens to share close ties with Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey, with the college bench boss and his players visiting his pal in Canada for a Raptors game last season.
Asked to reflect on Kohama’s impact on his coaching career, Sato admitted he has eternal gratitude for the role that the legend played in his own life.
He summed it up this way in an interview with Hoop Scoop: “(My) career as a coach . . . is thanks to him.”
He introduced Coach Dwane Casey to me,” Sato said. “I could assist him for four years.”
Casey and Sato first met in 1991, when they coached in Japan’s collegiate ranks. Fast forward to November 2016, when Sato guided his Tochigi Prefecture-based team to an All Japan Intercollegiate Basketball Championship title for the first time, doing so with an assist from Kohama.
The legend’s advice?
Kohama told him to maintain a “normal state of mind” the day before the final game (Nov. 26), Sato recalled.
“He was really glad that my team won,” he added. “He was always saying he was proud I was a pupil of Coach Casey.”
For many members of Japan’s basketball community, especially a large number of coaches and players from Kohama’s heyday, Sato expressed their shared feelings.
Sato admitted he “now has much grief (because) I’m deprived of a teacher.”
Since the mid-1990s, Tom Hovasse, the Japan women’s national team’s new head coach, has worked here as a player (in the JBL) and coach (WJBL). In hoop circles near and far, he saw the gravitas that Kohama had and the respect that he garnered throughout the nation.
“It was sad to see him pass away,” Hovasse commented recently. “His teams always had the right balance of talent, strategy and grit and always played well on the biggest stage. . . . Winning the championship was always his goal, but he always had a bigger, better vision of basketball in Japan that drove a lot of his decisions. He will be missed.”
London-based banking executive Sadachika Yoshioka, who has closely followed developments in Japanese basketball for decades, considers Kohama a legend who made a profound impact for the sport in his home nation.
The Tokyo native’s career path provided true inspiration, he explained, saying Kohama’s go-get-it mindset was a driving force “behind his remarkable triumphs and results.”
“In the late 1950s, when it was not long after World War II, he was a pioneer of Japanese basketball,” Yoshioka remembered. “Though it must have been hard to travel overseas for Japanese people at that time, (as a student) he went to the U.S. to learn from the University of Kentucky Wildcats in order to pursue what real basketball is.
“This reminds us of the importance of enthusiasm, as taking actions like this energizes those who are ambitious and helps (us) grow strongly. It is not an exaggeration to say that we owe his efforts for what Japanese basketball is today.
“My deep sympathy is with his family. He will be remembered in our souls and prayers.”
Among Kohama’s proteges are Akita Northern Happinets coach Makoto Hasegawa and Hiroshima Dragonflies mentor Kenichi Sako of the B. League’s first and second division, respectively. Both men were fiercely competitive players and bring passionate following to their teams to this day.
American coach Bob Pierce, who led teams in both the JBL (Hitachi Sunrockers) and bj-league (Shiga Lakestars, Akita, Sendai 89ers) and worked at many annual summer camps conducted by current Japan Basketball Association technical director Tomoya “Coach Crusher” Higashino, recognized that the seeds for Kohama’s lifelong passion for basketball were planted at an early age.
“My favorite story is one he told in his book (which was published in 1999), about his childhood,” wrote Pierce, who has been working and coaching in China, including the men’s Under-18 national team, since leaving the 89ers in 2013, in an email. “Growing up in Akita during WWII as a young boy, he was told to stop playing basketball because it was an American sport. Of course his love for the game meant that he kept on playing and practicing anyway.
“That story made me respect him tremendously.”
With Kohama at the helm, the impressive accomplishments of the Giga Cats that included seven league titles between 1982 and 2002, attracted attention.
“His championship run with Isuzu probably produced the finest teams ever in Japan,” added Pierce, a former Japan national team assistant. “Expansion and rule changes have probably watered down the level a bit. Sako and Michael Takahashi were in their prime, and those teams were really good.”
When he guided Hitachi, Pierce recalled two triumphs over the Giga Cats were “the biggest wins . . . because they were the gold standard in Japan basketball.”
In 2010, Pierce was hired as bench boss for the Northern Happinets, where prefecture-wide enthusiasm for the sport includes rabid following of the traditional high school boys powerhouse team, Noshiro Technical High School.
That season, Kohama kept an active interest in Pierce’s squad. He was also a team adviser.
“He sat right behind the bench for our first home games,” Pierce recalled. “That was a lot of pressure. But he was always kind, gracious, and generous with his compliments. I’m sure there were many things he wished we would have done differently, but the success and growth of basketball into a new market that he cared about deeply were his top priority. And I really appreciated his support.”
Current Osaka Evessa bench boss Dai Oketai, who captured a pair of bj-league titles with the Ryukyu Golden Kings (2008-09 and 2011-12), had a memorable meeting with Kohama three years ago. At the time, Kohama was serving as an adviser for Iwate Prefecture’s National Sports Festival basketball team. The Big Bulls faced an Iwate representative squad in a practice game.
Afterward, Kohama dined with coaching staff members, including Oketani.
His most impressive words were just simple, like, “on defense, you have to have pride and spirit,” Oketani said.
“I really loved his winning mentality. I learned a lot about mentality from him. He was a winner.”