Tokyo Apache coach Joe Bryant has been all over the world because of basketball, and heading into this weekend, Bryant is hoping for another destination — the top of the heap in the bj-league.
The Apache are one of four teams squaring off this weekend at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum, and Bryant is the biggest name involved, player or coach.
The father of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, Joe Bryant gave Japan’s first pro basketball league instant credibility when he signed on with the Apache, and although he is the head coach of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks as well, Bryant said he will be back for next season and beyond, as long as the team will have him.
“I’m coming back next year, no doubt about it,” Bryant told a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan on Monday night in Tokyo. “Hopefully I can stay five, six, seven years.”
Bryant, who played in the NBA before playing professionally in Europe, rolls into Ariake — also the Apache’s home court — with a purple and gold cardigan, the colors of his son’s Los Angeles Lakers and of the Apache, a brilliant marketing move for a league trying to establish itself as the JBL Super League, Japan’s longtime corporate league, plans to go pro after next season.
The cardigan, with buttons that stop just above Bryant’s paunch that helped earn him the nickname “Jellybean” in the NBA, is more fitting for a school teacher than a 206-cm basketballer who cut his teeth playing against Julius Erving every day in practice, and that’s of how Bryant views himself.
“I kind of hate to be called a coach,” Bryant said. “I like to be called a teacher. I like to see players grow and learn about the game.”
And to Bryant, teaching the game means teaching it to everyone, not just the foreigners who put up the bj-league’s biggest offensive numbers. Teams have no limit of foreigners, and sometimes, Bryant said, teams will play four at the same time.
Although he admitted to using three foreigners on the court a couple times, Bryant said he usually does not go more than two-deep with non-Japanese.
“I’ve never lost focus of why I am here, which is to make the Japanese players better,” Bryant said. “Some teams play four Americans down the stretch, but I play two and then three Japanese. I don’t play four because the important thing is watching players grow.”
And making sure players have a chance to do so in the bj-league is something Bryant works hard on. Whether it is signing autographs or hosting basketball clinics for local school kids, the Apache have reached out to the community, even since before the season began.
“It’s not just about basketball,” Bryant said. “This is a new league, and we don’t know how well it will do. We all have dreams and fantasies. We’re just trying to get more involved.”
The bj-league will expand next season, adding two teams. One was supposed to be Fukuoka’s former Super League team, but the club folded and plans have changed.
As the Super League converts to a pro league and the bj-league builds up, Bryant said he hopes to see the kind of rivalry American basketball experienced before the merger of the NBA and ABA.
“I’d like to create that kind of rivalry,” Bryant said. “It would be great, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Bryant added that he felt it would be better for basketball in Japan if the two leagues eventually became one.
“For basketball to grow, they need to join,” Bryant said. “I just think they need to join hands at some point.”
But first, Bryant and the Apache have a championship to win.