Leading their teams to three consecutive Final Fours, Ryukyu’s Dai Oketani and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa’s Kazuo Nakamura have earned respect from their coaching peers and helped set the standard of excellence for which all future bj-league coaches will be judged.
Former Osaka coach Kensaku Tennichi, a winner of three titles and five Final Four appearances, and ex-Tokyo bench boss Joe Bryant, who took his team to back-to-back finals, are also recognized as playing an important role as sideline mentors in the bj-league’s formative years.
Current Evessa coach Ryan Blackwell recognizes that Oketani and Nakamura understand what it takes to be successful.
“Great players definitely help make a coach better . . . sometimes. People say Phil Jackson was only good because he had (Michael) Jordan, (Scottie) Pippen, Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal), and Kobe (Bryant),” Blackwell told The Japan Times. “You have to also manage the players the right way, control large egos and get them to co-exist.
“I think Dai does a good job managing his talent in Okinawa. He definitely has one of the most talented teams in the league but he manages them well and they seem to have a lot of respect for him. His teams are well balanced and seem to have really good chemistry.”
Coming off a championship season, the Phoenix remain hungry, focused and committed to achieving the same goal this season, as evidenced by their 40-6 record before the playoffs began.
“Nakamura has a lot of talent as well,” said Blackwell, whose team will face the Golden Kings in the Western Conference final on May 21 at Ariake Colosseum. “His teams are very disciplined and play an up-tempo hectic style of basketball. Defensively, they are very energetic and active which matches his personality on the sidelines. I admire his energy and passion for the game. His teams do a good job of maintaining their composure during close games and that’s why they won almost all the close ones. That’s a sign of a great team.”
Hamamatsu will meet the Niigata Albirex BB, led by Masaya Hirose, who has been the team’s coach since before the bj-league was established.
Meanwhile, departing Sendai coach Honoo Hamaguchi, another mentor who has gained admirers and been one of the top leaders since the league was founded, faces a time of transition.
“I’m not sure what Honoo will do,” Blackwell said. “Before the season he talked about taking a year off and going to learn more in the (United) States. I’ve heard several teams are interested in him coaching next season. He’s trying to decide now.”
Ryukyu assistant coach Keith Richardson, for one, believes Hamaguchi remains a good fit for the 89ers.
“He has built the same type of system in Sendai as what we have here in Okinawa,” Richardson said. “He is too valuable to the bj-league not to be on somebody’s bench but then again I say the same thing about coach (Kensaku) Tennichi and (assistant) coach (Yasushi) Higa, formerly of three-time bj-league champion Osaka.
“I believe many teams are putting too much emphasis on spending way too much money on players and are neglecting the most important part of their team, the coach, their leader. Unbelievable.”
So what makes Oketani a successful leader in Richardson’s view?
“I believe, no I know, the major part of coach Oketani’s success has been his players believe in him, his system and he is a player’s coach. He can be tough when he needs to be and at times be that person who can sit down with his players and hear their side or ideas. I would say the most important thing is that he has earned the respect of his players and his coaching staff and he gives the same back.
“He is great at getting his message across to others and also he is a good listener. He is the most balanced coach I have ever worked with.”
Parker speaks out: Fukuoka star Michael Parker, the league’s scoring leader in each of the past three seasons, said in a post-game interview on Sunday that he’ll consider offers from other bj-league teams as he weighs his options for 2011-12.
Parker didn’t say he doesn’t want to play for the Rizing next season, but he did appear frustrated that his team’s title quest ended before the Final Four. The Rizing added guards Akitomo Takeno and Nile Murry in the offseason and signed big men Abdullahi Kuso, after he was released by the Golden Kings earlier in the season, and Ivo Hoger to shore up the team’s frontline for the playoffs.
Winning scoring titles (three) and steals titles (four) are reminders of Parker’s all-around brilliance as a player, but he’s not satisfied with the team’s early exit from the playoffs.
“I want the championship,” he said, “and I’m not going to stop until we get it.”
Historic best: Evessa power forward Lynn Washington has his mind made up, and it didn’t take him minutes or hours to come up with a choice. When he was asked who’s the best passing guard in the history of the bj-league, Washington blurted out this answer: Kenny Satterfield.
“Kenny can pretty much do it all, he can rebound, too,” Washington said of the ex-NBA floor leader. “He can shoot. Those New York point guards have a lot of hype surrounding them coming out of high school. Kenny was one of the fortunate ones to actually back up that hype. … I would have to say he’s probably the best point guard to ever play in the bj-league.”
Room for growth: Rizing guard Akitomo Takeno spent time at both backcourt positions this season, getting a chance to gain further experience as a scoring guard and as the on-court conductor of the team’s fast-paced attack.
Takeno, Fukuoka coach Tadaharu Ogawa noted, played shooting guard in college so the transition was natural for him. The young standout described this season as a “learning experience” and he vowed to keep making improvements and help the team get better as well.
Turmoil in Akita
?: Expansion teams tend to lose more games than they win, which leads to frustration and disappointment, but also helps build for the future.
As a first-year team the Akita Northern Happinets won 18 of 50 games before being swept by the Albirex in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Making the playoffs in the East’s modified structure, without Tokyo, Saitama or Sendai in the hunt after the March 11 earthquake, gave Akita fans a taste of excitement. But as one league insider suggests hometown hero Makoto Hasegawa, whose status as a playing manager elevated him beyond the role of an ordinary player, was an impediment to the team’s on-court development under first-year coach Bob Pierce.
The source said, “You know Akita lost the game where he scored 28 (on Dec. 25 vs. Niigata). Sometimes, worse when he scores, the pace slows down, no one else touches the ball, so they lose their rhythm and he gives up all those points and more on the defensive end.”
In addition, Hasegawa’s playing time limited the options for getting rookie Makoto Sawaguchi into the game.
“(Sawaguchi) couldn’t get off the bench late in the season,” the league insider said.
In the closing days of his NBA career, one-time standout Sam Cassell had lost the admiration of some contemporaries, who felt his playing time took away from others’ opportunities. It appears the same thing is happening with Hasegawa.
“He (Hasegawa) can’t run or defend anyone, can’t make shots when he’s tired, but still thinks he’s the best player and going to help win the game,” the observer pointed out. “He’s also the boss, so he subs himself in and out. And as much as Akita fans know about basketball, they have blinders on when they watch ‘Sam Cassell’ hobble up and down the court, and get burned repeatedly on defense.”
In a nutshell: The Grouses (13-31 before the playoffs) were a lousy shooting team the entire season. Like the Happinets, they made the playoffs by virtue of default, with the 89ers, Apache and Broncos not around to compete for a playoff spot in the season’s final weeks.
Now, Toyama can look back at its final loss of the season, 73-62 on Sunday against the Phoenix, and see numbers that were all too familiar: 3-for-22 on 3-point shots.
Quotable: “A lot of times Lynn Washington is going to get (double-teamed), I’ll get doubled and when we swing (the ball) to our Japanese guys we want them to make plays. So whether it’s attacking the basket or making the open shot, we need them to do that if we are going to win the championship.”
— Evessa center Wayne Marshall, discussing a key aspect of the team’s offensive attack.
Quotable, part II: “It would be a great accomplishment for any coach, whether he’s a foreign coach or whether he’s a Japanese coach to win a championship in his first season. So really, foreign label or Japanese label, it really shouldn’t be looked at like that. It should be looked at for what he has accomplished in his first year.”
— Washington, reflecting on the possibility that Blackwell could become the first foreign head coach to win a title in bj-league history.
Lending a hand: On Thursday, Shiga Lakestars center Ray Schafer sent an email from Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, where he and his wife, Sarah, are participating in a weeklong volunteer project. The trip was organized by Otsu Baptist Church, where the Schafers are members.
“I was aware of an open seat in the van with the Otsu Baptist Church,” Schafer wrote. “It left at 4:40 a.m. on Monday morning but I had (playoff) games in Okinawa (against the Golden Kings) Saturday and Sunday. Since we lost, our season was finished and my heart has been so heavy for the people of Japan who have had everything taken from them, not to mention the loss of loved ones and friends. Before every game my teammates and I held boxes for fundraising that would go to benefit those in Sendai, it was so humbling to see those who could not go to help take money from their wallets and purses and give time and time again. Then before every game started, we held a moment of silence for those hurting and those lost.
“This is my third year playing here in Japan and I can now call it home away from home and the people my wife and I have come to know and love are our family and friends now. So even though I arrived back in Otsu at 11:30 p.m. there wasn’t a question in my mind that I was going to be on that van in 6 1/2 hours. Last minute on Sunday our dear friends Taka and Angie offered to watch our 1-year-old twins for the week if my wife Sarah also wanted to come and serve. And so we took them up on that offer and are up here together.
“We had no idea where we would be helping, we just knew we wanted to help in whatever way possible,” Schafer continued. “We joined with The Global Mission Center, which takes in volunteers, houses them and provides meals. We have been sleeping on the floor with people from all over Japan who are coming and going every week. Most groups are able to take a week off to come out and help . . . and just when they are leaving and you think we are going to be short handed, in comes another group twice as big and willing to do anything from chopping vegetable for the days meal, and clearing debris, to visiting shelters and washing peoples feet and showing just how much we care and love them.
“He added: “We chose to spend our days clearing debris from 10 (a.m.) to 2:30 (p.m.) between the 35 and 30 km zone from the nuclear plant. Just as in basketball, our strength is in numbers . . . we show up to an area of ruble that used to be someone’s house or business and load up wheel barrels one at a time, handful by handful and shovelful by shovelful. Then sort it out and move it to an area for big machinery to take it away. What seems painstakingly slow is amazing by the end of the day. The second part of my day is taken up running a two-hour basketball camp for local kids. The first day it was 14 high school girls. Second day was 40 elementary kids, and today was 26 junior high boys and girls. More important than the fundamentals of passing and dribbling that I taught, was the time invested in these important children who are surrounded by such devastation and let them know that this too shall pass and life will get better.
“Tomorrow we are finished and will be making the nine-hour drive back to Otsu . . . we can’t wait to hold our babies once again. This is the first time we have ever been away from them for even a day, yet it was important for us to give fully our time, energy and love to help those here in Fukushima.”
Projects like this one deliver a positive image about the bj-league and demonstrate to the nation that players, coaches and teams are committed to helping communities throughout Japan.
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IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5