Twenty seven years ago, Tom Hovasse arrived in Japan to play basketball. He would go on to become a star in the top Japanese league, but he never envisioned how his life would turn out.
Now, Hovasse is the boss of the country’s women’s basketball national team. The 50-year-old became the head coach for the “Akatsuki Five” earlier this month, becoming the first non-Japanese to take the helm.
“No, not at all,” Hovasse said, when asked if he could have imagined he would end up in his current job when he first began playing for the Toyota Motors team (the predecessor of the current Alvark Tokyo of the B. League) in Japan’s semi-pro circuit in 1990, following a practice for his provisional national team at Tokyo’s National Training Center on Monday.
“I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese. After my first year, I was actually thinking about leaving. The first year, we had an irekaesen (promotion/demotion game) between the first and second divisions. And if we would’ve lost, I think Toyota would have just stopped playing basketball. But we won, thankfully. So I stayed. (But) I didn’t expect this. That’s for sure.”
And today, the American who didn’t “speak a word of Japanese” is not accompanied by an interpreter in his job. He coaches his players directly with his own words in Japanese, and addresses the media in the language as well (this interview was conducted in English).
Hovasse is mild-mannered off the court, but with high goals for the Tokyo Olympics he’s relentless in pushing his players on the court, and occasionally raises his voice when they don’t live up to his expectations. He always asks his players to be detail-oriented, pushing them to genuinely play to their best.
Young guard Manami Fujioka, who also played under Hovasse with the nine-time reigning Women’s Japan Basketball League champion Jx-Eneos Sunflowers, where he was the head coach, said Hovasse never compromises on how he wants his team to play.
“He’s very tough on you,” the 23-year-old said of the Colorado native. “He tells us we won’t win the gold medal (at the Tokyo Olympics) unless we do things as much as we are doing them now. He tells us we are shooting to defeat the United States for the gold medal.”
Hovasse aims to play fast both offensively and defensively, using high-level tactics like trapping defenses to make up for the lack of size on his team. He also emphasizes toughness, both mentally and physically, so that the team is able to compete on par against the rest of the world.
“I think if (younger players) make the same mistakes two, three times, then I get on them, on purpose,” said Hovasse, who was an assistant under Tomohide Utsumi on the women’s national team at the Rio Olympics. “I mean, they’ve got to remember. They get sometimes shocked, ‘Oh, I better do better next time.’ You have to do that as a coach.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure in games, in the next couple of years, tons of pressure. And you’ve got to have players that respond to the pressure. So in practice, I always turn up the heat. I mean, you can’t just (be), ‘Oh, whatever, it’s practice.’ I’m always intense in practice. And that’s how you have to prepare for games, because games are going to be even more intense.”
The women’s team, unlike the struggling men’s national team, has had some success over the last few years, capturing the FIBA Asia Championship title in the last two tourneys and advancing to the quarterfinals, before losing to the U.S., at last summer’s Rio Olympics.
In a sense, all those achievements came thanks to a rich talent pool led by WNBA player Ramu Tokashiki, Yuka Mamiya and Asami Yoshida. But obviously, those players won’t be around forever and the team will need some new stars to stand out.
Hovasse admitted concern on that front, which is why he assembled several young, inexperienced players for the current training camp.
“After three years, Mamiya’s going to be 30, Tokashiki will be 29,” said Hovasse, who briefly played for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks during the 1994-95 season. “That’s why I want to get these younger girls a little taste of the national team.”
But Hovasse remains relentless no matter how old his players are, and demands them to be tenacious or shitsukoi — a Japanese word he uses a lot.
“Just be shitsukoi,” he said. “When you are boxing out, don’t give in to that. So to me, that’s a big part. Our speed, we always are going to use. Our head, our thinking, we are going to out-think people, we are going to out-work people. Now we are going to out-tough, too.”
Asked who he looks up to as a basketball coach, Hovasse mentioned Bruce Parkhill, his college coach at Penn State, and Lenny Wilkens, who was the bench boss when Hovasse was with the Hawks. But Hovasse doesn’t really attempt to model himself on anyone else.
“I’m trying to create my own brand of basketball,” he said with a smile.
This is the first training camp for the provisional national team. The team is scheduled to have four more training camps and two trips abroad (the sites will be announced later), leading up to the FIBA Asia Cup in Bangalore, India. The tournament will serve as a qualifier to the 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup in Spain, for which four teams will earn berths from Asia.