Bob Hill is eager to begin the next chapter in his long, accomplished career as a basketball coach. And he’s smart enough to know that some of his biggest adjustments will take place off the court.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season as the Tokyo Apache’s new sideline supervisor, Hill summed up his thoughts this way: “The greatest challenge will be to accept and embrace the culture of Japan.”
As the first former NBA head coach to accept the same position with a bj-league team, Hill will be an intriguing individual to observe throughout the course of the 2010-11 season, which tips off in mid-October.
I’m looking forward to this assignment as much as any I’ve had in my career as a sports writer.
Watching his in-game mannerisms and his dealings with players, fans, media, referees and front-office personnel will give plenty of insight into how an accomplished hoop mentor transfers decades of experience to the other side of the world in a completely new setting.
But understand this: The 61-year-old Hill has dealt with plenty of changes in his professional career. For starters, he’s been hired (and fired) by four NBA teams: the New York Knicks, the San Antonio Spurs, the Indiana Pacers and the Seattle SuperSonics.
That says plenty about his basketball acumen and his ability to communicate his goals on and off the court. And he’s coached well-known stars Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Reggie Miller, as well as worked against such luminaries as Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.
He’s also lived and worked overseas, including time spent in Europe and China.
“We spent a season in Italy and arrived there with open minds regarding life in Italy and that made our experience a valuable one,” Hill told The Japan Times in a recent interview.
“We look forward to learning about life in Japan and embracing it every step of the way.”
Hill conveyed those thoughts on behalf of his wife, Pam, and son, Casey, a former college player at Trinity (Texas) University who’ll be an assistant coach for the Apache this season.
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During an off-season of wholesale changes for the Apache, Hill believes the team has taken steps in the right direction. Tokyo’s new American ownership group, Evolution Capital Management, new president, former NFL fullback Chris Hetherington, and new general manager Conor Neu, a former Princeton University basketball player, appear committed to building a franchise that can sustain success.
Tokyo, with a roster thrown together at the last minute, slipped to 22-30 last season under Motofumi Aoki after back-to-back trips to the bj-league championship game while Joe Bryant coached the squad.
“The ownership group of Evolution is extremely impressive and I was immediately intrigued with them,” Hill admitted. “I believe they will work hard and be successful at some point with this franchise here in Tokyo.”
As of press time, it’s unclear what the 2010-11 Apache roster will look like on Opening Day. Too much time remains for the Apache and their rivals to make bad, good and excellent player personnel decisions.
But this much is certain: Hill’s deep pool of basketball contacts — scouts, agents, coaches, front-office executives — can only help him play a vital role in Tokyo’s rebuilding efforts. Furthermore, NBA Development League alums (David Palmer and Rodney Webb, for instance) have provided quality production for bj-league clubs, and Hill’s ties to the D-League as its former coaching consultant can be an added boost for Tokyo.
To a man, Hill is maintaining an optimistic but patient outlook about the early stages of the painstakingly slow work of assembling the team’s new-look squad.
“I think we will arrive in September at some point,” he said. “I’m not really sure yet. The owners are in Tokyo as we speak so when they get back to L.A. (Los Angeles) we will come up with a game plan. As far as the team goes, we will all work together putting the roster together. We are working on that already.”
So what did he think of last season’s Apache squad? Was it an awful team? An underachieving team?
Hill’s not ready to reserve judgment, at least not publicly, on what he’s seen of the team’s game DVDs.
Instead, he said, “I’m not going to comment on the team because I don’t know anyone connected with last season’s team and that would not be fair.”
He added: “We will probably play differently but I won’t really know until our team is put together. Even if the team is a collection of numerous new faces, it can still succeed with the right blend of talent, hustle, solid fundamentals and good coaching.”
Indeed, it’s Hill’s job to produce the winning concoction.
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In widespread travels in China, where he has coached touring teams that competed against the Chinese national team, conducted clinics and helped guide a team during the 2009 Chinese National Games, Hill has demonstrated that he’s not afraid of working in unfamiliar locales.
“The experience last summer (leading a Guandong team) was very rewarding because I coached Chinese players in a very stressful time. We were able to win the gold medal and make history in their province, so it all turned out real well,” said Hill, who will deal with learning the strengths and weaknesses of 15 bj-league foes, including three expansion teams this coming season.
“Every country has its strengths and weaknesses so learning about the Japanese players will be interesting. . .”
Some people stop setting goals once they reach a certain age, while others stay motivated to continue to pursue excellence in their chosen profession. Hill fits into the latter category.
“Basketball has been my life’s work and I look forward to being their coach,” he said, looking ahead to the coming season. “Tokyo is one of the great cities in the world and getting the opportunity to live there and learn the Japanese culture is a wonderful experience my wife Pam and son Casey and I look forward to.”
Beyond his immediate ties to the new Tokyo ownership, Hill wants to leave a lasting legacy for the sport here in Japan. And hopefully, the Japan Basketball Association and the NBA can foster stronger ties with the bj-league to make this happen.
(The Chinese Basketball Association, for instance, has active involvement with the NBA to better train Chinese coaches, something the bj-league could certainly use for its own native mentors.)
“I have no idea what impact I will have on Japanese basketball,” he said. “I hope that my many years of experience will have positive and lasting effects. I always believe that we have an obligation in coaching to share and help each other when possible.
“I’m looking forward to bringing my experiences to Japan and obviously putting them on display with our team.”
To reach those goals with the Apache, Hill outlined his basic coaching tenets.
“The key to exhausting your team’s potential is the harmony that’s built within your players,” said Hill, who led the Spurs to an NBA-best 62-20 record in 1994-95. “That is a responsibility of everyone. The players must care about each other on and off the court and commit to winning.
“The team’s performance must have a balance that is anchored by their defense. Teams that reach their potential embrace the defensive end of the floor and score points as a result of that.”
As for his own mentors, Hill singles out ex-NBA coaches Bill Fitch and and Hubie Brown and Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown for having a profound impact on his development as a coach.
“I have had a very privileged career with regards to learning my profession and working with some great coaches. I took something from each one and added it to my beliefs,” he concluded.
“The best teacher, however, is when you get your first head coaching opportunity. Then you find out if you can coach and if you love it.”