TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — A big smile flashes across David Benoit’s face as he takes a break from running the Saitama Broncos’ evening practice.
He sits down in a folding chair and shows enjoyment in being the guy running the show.
Then he answers questions about his team’s prospects for the coming season, the addition of double-double maestro Mamadou Diouf (“I can’t believe we’ve got him,” coach says) via free agency after a dominating season at Sendai and his professional background as a hoopster.
The Broncos clearly needed a change after a 15-25 record in 2006-07 under first-year coach Kenji Yamane.
Benoit, a well-traveled professional player, welcomes the opportunity to steer the bj-league team in the right direction and that started with Saturday’s season-opening game against the Tokyo Apache at Ariake Colosseum.
“I’m excited about the season, and there are many things that I have learned over my career from so many different coaches,” he says, including Utah Jazz head man Jerry Sloan, who utilized the pick-and-roll to great effect with Karl Malone and John Stockton.
Perhaps it was his 59 NBA playoff appearances that helped him the most in acquiring the hoop acumen that sets him apart from the average Joe. Playoff contests showcase the best of the best: teams with the ability to make the proper play in clutch situations time after time.
Benoit, 39, retired as a player after last season and made the jump to the most important seat on the bench.
A soft-spoken fellow from Louisiana, Benoit has a sharp, articulate and, at the same time, witty approach to answering questions.
Take this response, for example, to my inquiry about the potential one-two punch of power forward Gordon James (The Japan Times’ 2006-07 bj-league Defensive Player of the Year) and Diouf to be a nuisance to opponents in the paint.
“That is something that I want to make sure all the other coaches have to figure out,” he says, laughing.
KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO
Benoit spent a year in Spain (1990-91) after his collegiate career at the University of Alabama. He was not drafted by an NBA squad, but parlayed his hard work and hustle into a 479-game career in the NBA over eight seasons at the small forward position.
“I am definitely excited about getting a chance to be the coach, especially coming right after retirement,” he says, reiterating his message.
He expresses the same viewpoint in his non-verbal communication (briskly walking the floor during the two-hour evening session at Mihara Junior High School) and in his directives to the team (telling the players, for instance, to speed up a fast-break drill).
“Really the foundation of basketball is not my idea,” Benoit tells me. “Somebody did it before, so I am just taking it from guys who did it before and they were really successful. So I think for any coach, or assistant coach, or any coach in general, he would want to be able to use that way that worked before.”
What worked before?
Well, from the time of George Mikan to Moses Malone to Tim Duncan, these are two sure-shot ingredients for success: suffocating defense and you-can’t-stop-us offense, two elements of Benoit’s coaching bible, in fact.
“As far as being a head coach right now, and even as a player, I learned that most teams can run the same offense or the same similar type of defense,” he says, “but it’s the team that sets the best screens, that makes the open shots, plays good team defense, get the rebounds, make the little hustle plays and last is having two or three guys that can just make the offense.”
Then Coach B. pauses to think of the precise word he wants to say to complete the thought.
“Playmakers,” he offers. “If you have five or six guys that can do that, great. But if you have two or three guys . . .”
Benoit also realizes the win and loss columns are directly affected by a team’s mind-set.
“You have to have mentally tough guys,” he says, “Because, hey, you may throw the ball away, you may get a turnover. Everyone gets turnovers, but the guy who can recover from the turnover, he can just forget it.
“That mental aspect of playing basketball — basketball is a forward-moving game — (and) it’s never in reverse. It’s always forward-moving, so even when you make four or five good plays, you still made one bad play. You can’t let that one bad play stop you from continuing to move and make another great play.”
Benoit, who served as an assistant coach during the latter stages of the 2005-06 season, clearly respects the game. You figure this out after only a few seconds of hearing him blurt out his thoughts on the game’s fundamentals. And he’s not arrogant enough to think that he’ll be start a basketball revolution, ushering in a new offensive or defensive era.
“There’s nothing that I can do to change the game, because everything that’s been done for this game has been done,” he says.
“It’s just copying it and trying to do very well, just doing very good copies,” he adds with a chuckle.
Broncos forward Andrew Feeley, for one, is confident in Benoit’s ability to copy from the best.
“Last year he was a person you would ask questions to player to player because he had that experience and basketball was his life,” Feeley says, expressing great admiration for his hoop sensei. “He knows everything you can know about basketball.”
“And that’s that one great thing he has as coach, because everybody has that great respect for him being a great player, and now becoming a coach that respect is still there.”
So how has Benoit changed? I ask.
“His attitude has changed because last year it was more of a player friendship, a player relationship, now it’s more of a coach-player relationship,” Feeley reveals.
“He’s more strict (now). When we mess up, he lets us know about it.
“He’s made a good adjustment. From the very first practice, he’s letting us know that he’s the guy in charge. He’s really teaching us a lot more about the game.”