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The hoops worth going through

by Baye McNeil

This is my favorite time of the year. Ask anyone.

For most of the year, there’s no telling where I might be found and what I might be up to. But from mid-April through late June, I guarantee I’m within range of a TV screen, immersed in the NBA playoffs. Initially when I moved to Japan, lacking easy access to all the sports I indulged back in the U.S., I allowed my passion for the NFL and MLB to dissipate. But not the NBA. By hook or by crook, I would get my fix.

Japan has its versions of American sports, and with an expectation adjustment, they can be quite entertaining — particularly Japanese basketball. So, when I learned that the head coach of a team in my former stomping grounds of Saitama was a brother from the U.S., I felt this to be a good opportunity to learn what it’s like to be at the helm of a professional basketball team in Japan.

Samir St. Clair, a native of Atlanta, has coached the Saitama Broncos — a third-division B. League team — since 2016. He’s not the first black coach of a Japanese basketball team, nor is he the first in the Broncos’ history. But he’s nonetheless a rarity. I sat and chatted with him at a diner in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture. His wife, Jamila, and their 2-year old daughter sat nearby.

Seated across from this sharply dressed gentleman who had a competitive gleam in his eye as he spoke, I could see he had the attitude of a man accustomed to being heeded. Not out of fear (though it didn’t take much imagination to envision Japanese players being a bit intimidated by him) but out of well-earned respect. So, I wasn’t surprised to learn that he was on the path to becoming a lawyer when he got into coaching. His attitude would have served him well in either profession.

“A friend of mine asked me to come help him,” St. Clair says of how he first caught the coaching bug. “He was coaching a 12 (year-old) and under team. And after doing that I was hooked. I always had a mind for basketball. I wouldn’t just watch games, I’d study what was going on.”

It wasn’t long before he landed his first professional level gig at Southern Polytechnic State University. There he learned what coaching truly entailed. He was involved in every aspect of running a college basketball team, from class scheduling to scouting to budgeting camps and everything between.

“We didn’t send any players to the NBA,” says the 41-year-old. “But we had a lot of guys who came out and went to play overseas and had great careers.”

From polytechnic, the next stop was Clark Atlanta University where, as associate head coach, he experienced a taste of success. His first and only year there, the team won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletics Conference championship (2010-11).

Watching the NBA all the years I have, it’s hard to get a read on just what associate head coaches do. It seemed to me their primary responsibility is to try and hold back heated head coaches from getting technical fouls when they’re launching expletives at the referees. I told St. Clair as much and he had a good laugh at that.

“One thing you must learn to be a good assistant is how to minimize the peripheral things the head coach has to deal with.”

St. Clair ran off a list of things head coaches he’s worked for expected him to manage, like making sure students are attending class and keeping their grades up and on-track to graduate, and whatever trouble players might get into off campus: girls, drugs and other distractions from the game.

After one year at Clark, St. Clair made the decision that this would be his career path, and that it was time he sought a position as head coach.

An opportunity to do just that presented itself then. The only problem was, it was a long way from Georgia, namely, in the United Arab Emirates.

His plan was just to stay there a couple of years, acquire some head coaching experience and then make his way back to the U.S. But, like myself and many of the expats here in Japan as well, that couple of years kept extending — and for good reasons.

“We got spoiled in Dubai, socially,” St. Clair says. “You can find your own niche and be comfortable. There’s a basketball community and a large community of African-Americans there as well. It’s just like home, really. There are 110 different nationalities that live there … and about 85 percent of the population are foreigners. You’ve got everything there. If you didn’t know you were in Dubai, you might think you were in Miami!”

Coaching in the Middle East, however, was a different story. St. Clair experienced a great deal of culture shock dealing with players from an environment where basketball isn’t a career move. For instance, he immediately noticed discrepancies in player work ethics.

“The quality varied from team to team, but generally it was very lax,” he says. “The local players had never had great coaching when they were growing up, so they weren’t accustomed to being in a structured system. They came to practices late and were very nonchalant about it.

“There’s a different standard for the local players and the imports (players and coaches from overseas). That’s what they called us: ‘imports.’ The imports, we had to be there, but a lot of the locals were not strictly professional players. Some of them had day jobs so they didn’t take basketball seriously.”

St. Clair coached several teams in his time in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, managing players with various levels of skill and athleticism. But he noticed a shift that wasn’t promising.

“At the time, the Middle East was paying well, so that attracted solid college players from the U.S., and even some former NBA players. But the basketball was just getting worse and worse, and teams weren’t putting much focus on the sport anymore. Football (soccer) is the thing over there.”

After seven years of coaching under such conditions he began to investigate opportunities elsewhere, and that’s when his agent pitched coaching in Japan to him.

“I’d always heard good things about basketball in Japan, so I jumped at the opportunity,” St. Clair says. “Players talk, and coaches talk, and the teams in Japan had a reputation for professionalism.

“The word was, the players work hard, and the structure of the league is very good. I mean, you work overseas and you might find yourself in a situation where you don’t get paid, or the team folds in the middle of the season. But the Asian market is the best right now. Japan, China and the Philippines are coveted locations.”

He landed his coaching gig here in Japan in the summer of 2016. I was curious what a typical head coaching package looked like. You often hear of NBA and even some NCAA level head coaches in the U.S. bringing home seven figures.

“Some teams offer 10- or 12-month contracts, housing, utilities and transportation costs, that kind of thing,” St. Clair says, without giving too much away. Contract renewals are based on how well you do. Every game is an interview.”

Coaching a Japanese team presented some new challenges, particularly with communication. While most of the players in Dubai and Abu Dhabi had some English, the Japanese players generally didn’t.

It’s all well and good if the team is winning regardless, but “We were losing,” St. Clair says. “I had an interpreter, a Japanese-American, but still it was a challenge. There’s a universal language of basketball, and most of the Japanese players know it, but when you’re trying to forge relationships and make deeper connections with the players, something that is essential to success, the language barrier widens.

“But I’m fortunate because I’m now in my second year with some of the same players, so now they know my style and system, and we’ve kind of developed our own language and we connect on that level.”

While the UAE players were unstructured, St. Clair found the Japanese players to be extremely structured, which has its own drawbacks.

“My greatest obstacle is fighting the resistance to change when it comes to the game of basketball. The game has changed, from the way to coach it to the way the game is played. But many Japanese players have been coached in a similar way, so it is very hard for them to grasp new concepts.

“The way the game is played today, you have to spread the floor and read the defense. They’re beginning to learn to adjust on the fly instead of being robotic, but they’re so accustomed to being told what to do and where to be that just that has been a struggle. But they’re catching on.”

There had been reports of team owners uninterested in winning, and even some past players have spoken out harshly against the way they were treated. But, that hasn’t been St. Clair’s experience

“The team’s been good to me,” he says. “For example, when I arrived, I inherited some players that were already pretty good. But I also got some older Japanese players who didn’t buy into what I what I was trying to do. And there were some younger players who were inexperienced and lacked skill, which made it hard for me to implement my concepts. But the organization brought in some new guys this summer who fit the style of ball I wanted to play.”

For foreign coaches looking to get into coaching here in Japan, St. Clair had a few words of advice.

“Go to the games,” he says. “There are a few American coaches in the league, so you could contact the teams and offer your services to them on a volunteer basis. Assist the coach, learn the system, watch practices, take notes and just be around the game. Some coaches would be open to that.”

St. Clair says he and his family are fond of Japan and plan to stay for a while. The two of them ran off a list of things they find appealing, like the cleanliness, the safety and that their daughter can be trilingual. But, for coach St. Clair, the most appealing aspect is a mental one related to the game he loves.

“I’m getting my brain together here, basketball-wise. In the UAE, I couldn’t really use what I have, but here I get to use my basketball knowledge a great deal more. I teach concepts, instead of plays, and for me — and I tell my players this — that’s freedom.”

Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com.