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Former UCLA coach Lavin, five-time NBA All-Star Marques Johnson reflect on Sakuragi’s poise, intelligence

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Longevity is just one aspect of J.R. Sakuragi’s successful basketball career.

In exclusive interviews with The Japan Times, former UCLA and St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin, and ex-UCLA and ex-NBA star Marques Johnson reflected on the unique personality and skill set that have defined veteran SeaHorses Mikawa forward’s on-court presence throughout his career.

Looking back on his formative years, including at UCLA, Lavin and Johnson recalled Sakuragi’s talent shining through.

Lavin was an assistant to Jim Harrick before taking over the top spot in 1996.

Before becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen in 2007, Sakuragi was known by his given name (Henderson), and helped UCLA win an NCAA championship during the 1994-95 season when he was a college freshman, and Lavin had a front-row seat to watch Sakuragi’s rise to prominence. The Bruins defeated Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament final in Seattle.

Now 40 years old, he is a longtime fixture on the powerhouse SeaHorses squad.

Sakuragi, a former Vancouver Grizzlies player during the 1998-99 season, made his debut with the ex-JBL/NBL club, which was formerly called the Aisin SeaHorses, in 2001. His latest distinguished stint with the team since 2007 has provided stability and brilliant all-around play for the Aichi Prefecture-based club.

This season, Sakuragi averaged 11.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 57 games. He was No. 2 overall in the league in assists, a remarkable accomplishment for a player his age in any pro league. Above all, he has the hoop IQ and ability to play all five positions.

But Lavin, for one, isn’t surprised by Sakuragi’s sustained excellence.

Why?

“Even as a freshman at UCLA, J.R. exhibited exceptional poise, purpose and intelligence,” Lavin told The Japan Times.

“He played at his own unique purposeful and deliberate pace — allowing him to see the game with clarity.”

Asked what he considers the biggest reason that Sakuragi continues to excel at age 40, Lavin dished out this insight: J.R.’s style of play and career are analogous to the lessons learned from the tortoise and hare fable. With a steady, efficient, and skillful approach he has outlasted all his peers.”

Efficient, indeed. Sakuragi takes long, graceful strides on the court. He moves with purpose and knows how to pace himself.

“No athlete I coached burned physical and psychic fuel more effectively,” Lavin observed.

Even though Sakuragi’s UCLA career came long after legendary Bruins bench boss John Wooden’s retirement in 1975, J.R. embodied the coach’s principles.

“One of Coach Wooden’s favorite quotes was ‘never mistake activity for achievement,’ and JR’s career exemplifies purposeful achievement winning out over activity,” Lavin stated.

Johnson was a star on Wooden’s final UCLA team, which captured its 10th title during his sophomore season. In 1977, the Milwaukee Bucks made him the No. 3 overall draft pick.

A five-time NBA All-Star forward, Johnson has keen perspective on Sakuragi’s career and characteristics, both on and off the court.

“I’ve known J.R. since he was 14 and playing with my son and his future UCLA teammate Kristaan (Kris) Johnson,” the elder Johnson, a TV analyst for the Milwaukee Bucks, told The Japan Times. “He played on a (youth) team coached by former college head coach Bob Gottlieb. Bob’s son and sports media personality Doug was on the team as well as Miles Simon, who was the MVP of the ’97 Final Four while he was at Arizona. A lot of great talent.

“J.R. was probably 6-foot-5 (195 cm) then and moved fluidly for a guy his age and size. He could dribble, shoot and pass as well as anyone. He was extremely quiet and was not a trash talker at all. But I remember on those few occasions he did get tested he never backed down. Actually, he had a mean streak I wasn’t aware of.”

Sakuragi’s college career included a textbook example of poise during his first season with the Bruins.

Here’s Marques Johnson’s recollection: “(J.R.) showed his mental toughness when he hit two big free throws to beat Kentucky in the final seconds of a close game his freshman year.”

Title chase begins

The chase for the first B. League championship involves eight teams.

Their title quest commences this weekend, facing the ultimate pressure: win or go home.

In other words, there’s no Plan B for the three top-flight division winners: Tochigi Brex (East), Kawasaki Brave Thunders (Central) and SeaHorses Mikawa (West). The same is true for the other five playoff-qualifying clubs: Ryukyu Golden Kings, Sunrockers Shibuya, Chiba Jets, Alvark Tokyo and San-en NeoPhoenix.

Here’s a rundown of the opening-round matchups, which start on Saturday: (No. 1 seed) Kawasaki (49-11 record) vs. No. 8 Shibuya (32-28), No. 2 Tochigi vs. No. 7 Chiba (44-16), No. 3 Mikawa (46-14) vs. No. 6 Ryukyu (29-31) and No. 4 Tokyo (44-16) vs. No. 5 San-en (33-27).

Over their past 10 games, the Jets, guided by bench boss Atsushi Ono, had the best stretch of any team. They enter the playoffs with nine straight wins, going 9-1 in that sensational span.

Above all, Chiba thrives in making 3-point shots (a league-high 9.5 per game) and blocking shots (tied with the Osaka Evessa for the league lead with 4.2 per contest).

When looking at the across-the-board numbers, including won-loss marks, what stands out about the other seven tournament participants?

The Brave Thunders, Alvark and Sunrockers all went 7-3 to wrap up the regular season, while the SeaHorses, Brex and NeoPhoenix went 6-4.

The Golden Kings stumbled down the stretch, going 4-6 but the 2015-16 bj-league champion won its final two games against the Evessa, clinching the final playoff spot on Sunday.

Among key statistics from the regular season, Kawasaki topped the chart in scoring (84.3 points per game), field-goal percentage (48.4 percent) and assists (17.7 a game).

Tochigi, meanwhile, had the stingiest defense (69.8 ppg) and led the circuit in rebounding (43.5). Tokyo held foes to a league-low 42.1 shooting percentage and averaged the fewest turnovers (8.8). Shibuya was first in steals (8.0), causing fits for foes with disruptive tactics on defense.

Stepping aside

Guard Hikaru Kusaka, one of the most popular players in bj-league history, retired after the Kyoto Hannaryz’s season finale on Sunday.

Kusaka, 34, starred for the Sendai 89ers and Kyoto in a pro career that began in 2005. Born in Sendai, Kusaka was affectionately known as “Mr. 89ers” by the team’s rabid fans. He joined Kyoto in 2013, beginning his second stint with the Kansai club.

Kusaka saw limited playing time this season, appearing in 24 games and taking only 17 shots from the field.

A look at the B2 playoffs

The semifinals were set to start on Thursday, with the Nishinomiya Storks (43-17 in the regular season) playing host to the Gunma Crane Thunders (40-20). Game 2 is scheduled for Friday.

The Shimane Susanoo Magic (51-9) take on the Hiroshima Dragonflies (46-14) in the other semifinal series on Saturday and Saturday.

Update on the Big3

The upstart Big3, a summer-ball circuit set to launch this summer with a large throng of NBA alumni slated to compete, held its draft on April 30 in Las Vegas.

Guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who starred for the Kyoto Hannaryz from 2009-11, was selected with the 17th pick by the Three-Headed Monsters. (Now 48, Abdul-Rauf was a scoring sensation during his two seasons at Louisiana State. The Denver Nuggets made Chris Jackson, who converted to Islam and later changed his name to Abdul-Rauf, the No. 3 overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft.)

The season begins on June 25.

Tokyo Apache ties

Though the former bj-league team folded in 2011, news from the capital city’s charter franchise in the now-defunct league continues in basketball circles, with former players and team staff making headlines from time to time.

Ex-Apache general manager Conor Neu’s step-father, George Irvine, died on Monday at age 69 of cancer, according to published reports. Irvine played in the ABA (Virginia Squires, Denver Nuggets) during the 1970s and later served as a head coach in the NBA (Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons).

A forward at the University of Washington during the Pac-8 Conference era, Irvine was drafted by the SuperSonics in the eighth round of the 1970 NBA Draft. He was a first-team all conference selection that year.

“George Irvine brought me to Indiana and in my mind he was the beginning of NBA basketball with the Pacers in our building process for the years to come,” Donnie Walsh, a Pacers front office executive, was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.

“He had a great basketball mind, which allowed him to function at a high level as a coach, administrator and purveyor of talent. George was a once-in-a-lifetime friend and one of the best men in my life.”

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Send email to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp