Ryan Blackwell spent the past four bj-league seasons as a quality, fundamentally sound forward, suiting up for the Sendai 89ers for a pair of seasons before moving on to the Osaka Evessa.
He’s now ready for the next chapter of his basketball career as the new head coach of the Evessa. He retired as a player following the 2009-10 season which ended in Osaka’s lopsided loss to the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix in the championship game.
The Evessa, the league’s first dynasty, have set lofty goals for the upcoming season, which tips off on Saturday. Osaka begins its sixth season by playing host to the expansion Miyazaki Shining Suns.
“We are going to be very dangerous coming into the season,” Blackwell predicted.
“I see us (finishing) at the top. With our size and quickness, the Japanese players we have and our skill level, we are going to be right there at the end.”
Blackwell, who turns 34 in December, keeps in contact with his former college coach, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, a Basketball Hall of Famer who has led the Big East Conference school to three NCAA title appearances, including a championship in 2003.
Blackwell visited Syracuse associate head coach Bernie Fine, Boeheim’s right-hand man since 1976 at the upstate New York basketball powerhouse, a few weeks ago.
Despite the geographical distance between Kansai and Syracuse, Blackwell and Fine still maintain regular communication, primarily by e-mail. This gives the just-retired player a chance to tap into a wealth of knowledge from a well-respected assistant who specializes in mentoring centers and forwards.
Blackwell replaced Kensaku Tennichi, who had been the Evessa’s head coach since its inception in 2005. His contract was not renewed after last season. (Tennichi, who was 160-68 in five seasons at Osaka, is now coaching at Ashiya University in Hyogo Prefecture.)
In an e-mail sent to The Japan Times over the weekend, Fine said he believes Blackwell will be a successful pro coach.
“Ryan was always a smart player who had a great understanding of the game,” Fine wrote. “He got the most out of his athletic ability as a player. I am sure that Ryan will be an outstanding coach.
“Ryan was always well respected by his teammates and his coaches,” he added.
Blackwell expects two-time MVP Lynn Washington, the team’s rugged power forward, to be a leader on and off the court.
“His record speaks for itself,” Blackwell said. “He’s won three championships and been to the Final Four five straight times. He’s a proven winner. He works as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen and his determination is as hard as any player I’ve ever seen or been around.
“He’s a leader by nature and as long as he continues to do that we’ll be fine.”
The Evessa signed veteran swingman Billy Knight in the offseason. He played a pivotal role for the title-winning Phoenix last season. Osaka has also brought back center Jason Klotz, who joined the team last season.
Shota Konno and Hirohisa Takada are the team’s top returning Japanese players, while steady guard Masashi Obuchi, who scored 10.5 points in 22 games for the Ryukyu Golden Kings in 2009-10, also joined the rotation.
“He’s as talented as any Japanese in this league,” Blackwell said of Obuchi.
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Blackwell and Washington first met 12 years ago when Syracuse squared off against Washington’s Indiana University team, which was led by Bob Knight, the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history. Boeheim is fifth on the all-time wins list.
Washington, a popular star whose image is featured on Spalding’s back-page advertisement on this season’s bj-league media guide stated that Blackwell has made a smooth transition from playing to coaching.
“His overall understanding of the game,” is impressive, Washington said. “Just being able to play under coach Boeheim, being able to play Division I basketball has enabled Ryan to bring certain attributes to the table in coaching this team that other coaches in this league really don’t have. . . . That’s the most important thing that he brings to the table.
“The other thing that Ryan brings to the table is that he expects us to be professionals, and I think that’s the most important thing for everyone to understand on our team.”
Looking forward to the coming season, Washington said he expects Blackwell will be quick to make in-game adjustments and draw upon the lessons he learned in the ultra-tough Big East and in the past decade as a pro player.
“From substitutions to defensive and offensive strategy, that’s just one thing we were lacking,” Washington said, “but this year we have it. Just that right there is going to make a huge difference this year.”
It’s only natural for Blackwell to be excited about the chance to gain a few coaching tips from the league’s older sideline supervisors, especially Tokyo’s Bob Hill, Shimane’s Zeljko Pavlicevic and Hamamatsu’s Kazuo Nakamura.
“If you want to learn, if you want to get better, you can sit down with them, you can pick their brain and learn what’s helped them to be successful,” he said. “It’s good to have them around, just like it’s good to have an older player around on a team to learn from.”
Blackwell was asked to pick a few words to describe his coaching persona. With a good-natured chuckle, he responded by saying, “calm, cerebral, collective, poised” and added that he possesses a “calm fierceness.”
He knows, however, he has a serious job to do. And he’ll stay busy producing scouting reports and jotting down player and team tendencies that he learned while playing for the Eastern Conference’s 89ers and then for the Western Conference’s perennial title-contending Evessa.
He’s played against a large percentage of the league’s current crop of players, while most of the league’s current coaches haven’t. (Fukuoka’s Tadaharu Ogawa and Shiga’s Takatoshi Ishibashi have moved into coaching after previous stints as bj-league players.)
That could be beneficial for Osaka’s coaching staff and players.
Last season, Washington said, the team’s use of video as a preparation and learning tool was “very limited, so that’s going to change this year. The whole team will be watching our whole game. . . . It’ll be a part of the routine.”
In big and small ways, Blackwell will put his own stamp on the team’s identity. This is the intriguing third chapter in Evessa history — chapter one chronicles the three title seasons (2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08) and the next chapter highlights the next two seasons without star center Jeff Newton, who moved on to the Ryukyu Golden Kings — which officially begins this weekend.