The Oita HeatDevils were in shambles last season, including in the team’s front office. Not only did the club manage to lose a league-worst 44 games (it played 52), it also created unnecessary headaches for the bj-league.
In mid-May, while the Final Four was taking place at Ariake Colosseum, a league insider told The Japan Times that ex-Oita owner Vince Rawl backed out of his financial commitments to the team last September, just weeks before the league’s fourth season. Last week, more details emerged about Rawl’s dealings with the team, none of which paint the picture of a business executive with honest intentions.
As a result, the league was forced to step in and appoint an interim team president, bj-league president/COO Hidemitsu Nakano, setting the stage for a new company to be formed this summer, for Masaaki Mimaki to become the team’s new president and Brian Rowsom to take over as the new head coach.
Ex-coach Tadaharu Ogawa, moved on to become the Rizing Fukuoka’s new floor boss after a disastrous one-year stint. (Ogawa’s predecessor, Dai Oketani, was fired after Oita went 19-25 in 2007-08 and missed the playoffs. Oketani went on a win a championship as the coach of the Ryukyu Golden Kings last season.)
While Rowsom will focus on building a solid team in Kyushu, veteran coach Dean Murray remains disgusted by what he characterized as the unethical, uncouth manner in which he was treated by Rawl, a businessman from Austin, Texas.
In April 2008, Murray said he met Rawl and his business associates, including former JBL player Jerald Wrightsil, in Santa Monica, Calif. At the time, Murray was an assistant coach for the NBA Development League’s Anaheim Arsenal, one of three D-League teams he’s worked for.
According to the 45-year-old Murray, a former Appalachian (N.C.) State point guard, he was one of five head coaching candidates to meet Rawl and his representatives in Santa Monica about the Oita job.
Toshimitsu Kawachi, the bj-league commissioner, was also in Santa Monica at the time and he made a favorable first impression on Murray.
“He’s an intelligent, smart man,” Murray said of Kawachi in a recent interview in Kawasaki, where he’s been attending the Korean Basketball League team LG Sakers’ preseason training camp. Murray is entering his second season as an assistant coach with the club. “He (Kawachi) has the best intentions for the bj-league going forward.”
A week after his interview with Rawl, Murray said he received a telephone call.
“Vince Rawl was impressed with me and wanted to offer me the job,” he remembered.
A few days later, Murray agreed to the terms of the contract.
“We were moving forward to put the team together,” was the way Murray described the process.
Murray signed the contract and sent it to Rawl, he said. This was during the first week of May, but by the end of the month he still had not received an official signed copy of the contract from Rawl.
Murray’s agent got in contact with Rawl’s handlers about the contract, and Murray was assured “he would have it by the first week of June.”
June quickly passed by, and in July Murray traveled to Las Vegas, where the bj-league’s summer tryouts were being held.
League officials, including Kawachi, flew from Japan to Austin, Texas, to meet Rawl in July, a source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Japan Times. The officials had planned to travel with Rawl on his private airplane to Las Vegas for official league business, but Rawl was not at the airport at the scheduled time, according to the source.
Furthermore, he said, league officials could not get in contact with Rawl and thus had to make costly last-minute travel plans to get to Las Vegas.
Murray expected to meet Rawl, whose late father Lawrence was once the chairman of Exxon, in Las Vegas and belatedly finalize his contract. After all, he was working to build the team, lining up players to bring from the United States to Japan, watching game film of past bj-league contests and educating himself about the league’s top players and their tendencies.
Kawachi also had made plans to meet with Rawl in Las Vegas, Murray said.
“He never showed up,” Murray said of Rawl, shaking his head during the interview. “Nobody knows where he was.”
Then what happened?
“I went home to South Carolina,” Murray said. “Then I was informed Vince Rawl pulled out in mid-July, and Jerald Wrightsil said (Rawl) wasn’t going to be involved with the team anymore.”
“Vince Rawl had a financial group advising him and I think they told him to get out,” said Murray. “The whole thing to me was just sketchy. I never knew exactly what happened.”
Though he was based in the United States at the time, Murray was committed to making the HeatDevils a championship contender.
“I gave 100 percent effort to try to improve the team,” said Murray, who said his contract stated his job began on June 1.
Murray paused to take a sip of coffee and collect his thoughts. He continued by saying, “Vince Rawl and his group left a lot of people’s lives on hold. For people in Oita, this decision affected them greatly.
“This decision was totally unprofessional in my mind.”
Discussing the situation a year later, Murray told The Japan Times he had a guaranteed two-year contract with the HeatDevils.
But it appeared Oita was unwilling to fulfill its part of the obligation, he said. For instance, Rawl never signed or returned Murray’s contract, the coach said.
In order to receive any financial compensation from the team, Murray said he was informed that Rawl’s lawyers told him to “sue us.”
He added: “Vince Rawl’s lawyers said, ‘Basically, Mr. Rawl and his group don’t feel you’re owed any money.’
“At that point, they said I would have to go through legal channels to get it. I just wanted (to be be paid for) the two months I had worked. I just wanted them to be standup guys.”
Despite his unsatisfactory dealings with Rawl’s staff, Murray said Kawachi stepped in and told him he could remain the team’s coach. But in August 2008, Murray declined to accept Kawachi’s offer.
Murray admitted the whole situation “left a bad taste in my mouth . . . and I never came to Japan.”
Murray, however, had positive things to say about the development of the bj-league and its commitment to building a quality product.
“Mr. Kawachi and his office (staff) were true professionals in how they were dealing with me,” he said without hesitation. “But they were put in a bad situation by Vince Rawl’s unprofessionalism.”
When asked at the Final Four in May about Rawl’s involvement with the HeatDevils, Wrightsil denied any hint of discord.
Rawl has not responded to a number of phone and e-mail messages left by The Japan Times.
Yet despite his alleged problems with the HeatDevils, Rawl’s Palo Verde Holdings remains an official partner of the bj-league. And he will be a team director for the HeatDevils this season.