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Niigata brings down curtain on Hirose era


Staff Writer

After 11 seasons at the helm, Masaya Hirose’s tenure as Niigata Albirex BB coach has ended.

The team announced Wednesday it will not renew his contract for another season. And so after 201 regular-season wins and 173 losses, including the team’s existence in the JBL before the bj-league held its first game in 2005, the Albirex are in the rare position of needing to make a coaching decision in the offseason.

Hirose, 44, guided the Albirex to six consecutive bj-league playoff appearances, including a runnerup position in 2006. The team never won a championship under Hirose and never returned to the title game.

Furthermore, usual starters Akitomo Takeno of the Rizing Fukuoka, Naoto Kosuge of the Ryukyu Golden Kings and Ryosuke Mizumachi of the Akita Northern Happinets all thrived and had bigger roles with their new clubs after leaving Niigata.

Hours after the Final Four ended on Sunday, when the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix captured their second straight title, some basketball insiders were already suggesting that only Hirose’s job appeared safe among the Eastern Conference’s 2010-11 coaches or that there was the expectation that he would return to the same team next season.

(Tokyo Apache coach Bob Hill, who has led four NBA teams, and Saitama Broncos coach Bob Nash, a former NBA player, also may not return to Japan next fall.)

Now, as one coach pointed out in an email to The Japan Times on Wednesday night, “the dominoes are falling.”

Hirose was the last remaining coach with the same team since the bj-league opened with six teams in 2005.

Kensaku Tennichi, winner of three titles while coaching the Osaka Evessa, was not brought back for the 2010-11 season after his team lost to Hamamatsu in the final game of the 2009-10 season. Tennichi was the other remaining coach still with one of the original six teams before the latest wave of expansion. Though next fall will see 20 teams, including four more expansion clubs, in the league.

In a statement released by the team, Hirose said he cannot “express his feelings of the past 11 years in a single phrase.”

“Somehow we all lose our jobs, but no one is ‘fired,’ ” said one bj-league coach, who’s now looking for a new gig.

“I kind of thought Hirose might get fired two years ago, after the 2008-09 season. Then he kind of did the ‘Steve Lavin’ by getting to the Final Four last season by beating a much better Sendai team thanks to the mini-game rule, so they felt they had to bring him back for another season, probably against their better judgment.

“Still a little surprised they did it now. Wonder if losing (Willie) Veasley and (Nick) DeWitz after the earthquake played a role?” the coach added. “If Sendai plays next season, (Honoo) Hamaguchi might still be there, but if they shut it down, Niigata would be a good fit.”

So why is Hirose out of a job?

One source offered the following insight:

“Actually, his style is better suited for Japan college basketball. Hard practices, lots of drills and fundamentals, good for young players, but wears on veterans and foreign players. In the last few months Zach Andrews, George Leach and Julius Ashby all expressed to friends their desire to play elsewhere next season. If that got back to management, that might be the main reason he’s out.”

An avid Albirex supporter was stunned by this news, sending an email to summarize his thoughts on Wednesday night. He wrote: “I didn’t think this team could cut (Hirose) because he was loved so much by boosters and the local community.”

Coaching carousel: Following a disastrous 10-38 season, the Takamatsu Five Arrows will likely look for a new head coach to take over for Atsushi Kanazawa, while Oita’s Tony Hanson, who replaced L.J. Hepp in March after he was made the scapegoat for a trio of departing American players, has said he won’t be brought back for a second season with the team.

The Shiga Lakestars who went 30-20 and reached the second round of the playoffs for the first time in their three-year history, have not officially said that Hirokazu Nema, who replaced Takatoshi Ishibashi as the team’s head coach in March when top star Mikey Marshall was injured, is out of a job. But behind the scenes Shiga is making plans to hire a new bench boss, The Japan Times has learned.

In fact, during Final Four weekend, a source reported that Hamaguchi, the longtime Sendai 89ers coach whose contract with the team probably won’t be renewed, rejected an offer to become Shiga’s fourth coach since the start of the 2009-10 season.

However, he said, Lakestars GM/CEO Shinsuke Sakai has been in talks with former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Brad Greenberg about the team’s coaching position.

Greenberg has also been actively seeking employment with other bj-league teams as well, insiders told The Japan Times.

He resigned as coach of Radford College, a Big South Conference member, last week in the aftermath of a lousy season marred by a four-game suspension. The Washington Post reported his punishment was handed down “for NCAA violations tied to impermissible team travel and associated extra benefits for an ineligible player.”

Greenberg, 57, led Radford to a 55-68 record in four seasons, including 5-24 in 2010-11.

He has had a diverse background in basketball, serving as an assistant coach at a number of places, including South Florida and Virginia Tech, as well as for the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers. He was also the director of player personnel for the Portland Trail Blazers.

During his time as the Sixers GM, Greenberg made Allen Iverson the No. 1 overall pick in the 1996 Draft.

In other coaching chatter, word is getting around that Joe Bryant, currently an assistant for the WNBA’s Los Angles Sparks, could be brought back to the Tokyo Apache for a second tour of duty (he led the team from 2005-09) if Hill doesn’t return for a second season at the helm. … The expansion Chiba Jets, meanwhile, are expected to hire Qatar national team head coach Matt Skillman as their bench boss, according to several individuals with close ties to the league. Skillman has also recently coached in the Mexican League. Like Greenberg, Skillman’s coaching resume has been tarnished by a scandal. The Associated Press filed an article on this incident in December 2005, including the following material:

“A former junior college basketball coach was sentenced Monday to two years probation for falsifying players’ federal work-study timecards to allow them payment for work they never did,” the story stated. “Matt Skillman, 30, of St. Louis, pleaded guilty in September to fraud and embezzlement while an assistant basketball coach at Barton County Community College in Great Bend. He admitted mailing a falsified transcript for one player and completing academic work for others to help them obtain degrees. “Besides probation, Skillman was ordered to pay $26,259 in restitution. He could have been sentenced to a maximum five years in prison on the embezzlement charge and up to 20 years for mail fraud. … Skillman, who worked at Barton (Kansas) County Community College for just eight months in 2002 and 2003, was part of a ring of fraud at the school that has led to numerous other charges.”

Skillman entered a guilty plea, it was reported.

Meanwhile, The expansion Yokohama B-Corsairs are also planning to name an American coach to lead the franchise for its inaugural season, sources said.

Additional coaching vacancies?: It appears that Ryukyu Golden Kings sideline supervisor Dai Oketani’s three-year stint has probably ended, a source said on Wednesday. Oketani, who took over as the Oita HeatDevils head coach in their first season after ex-NBA player Juwan Oldham was fired and coached the team for two more seasons before moving on to Okinawa, led the Golden Kings to a championship in 2008-09 and back-to-back Final Four appearances the past two seasons.

As previously reported in this space, Kyoto Hannaryz coach Kazuto Aono, who led the team to a 28-20 record, is expected to be replaced following his first full season at the helm.

Lynn Washington update: The two-time MVP and Osaka superstar said he’s not retiring just yet, though the thought had entered his mind before the season.

“I decided to play one more season, one last season,” Washington said in a Thursday morning phone interview, “and the team was excited to hear that.”

“We look forward to bringing a couple guys back and getting back to Ariake (Colosseum) again,” he added, referring to another Final Four appearance.

Offering a few specifics about his decision to return to the Evessa, Washington said in talks with team officials that he wants to play a lesser role in the coming season, ideally for 15-18 minutes per game. He mentioned Memphis Grizzlies forward Shane Battier’s role as one he’d like to have at this stage of his career.

Noting that playing 32-35 minutes per game is physically demanding, the 33-year-old Washington wants to lead his team using a “more cerebral approach to the game,” he said.

Washington spoke in general upbeat terms about the direction of the team, saying he’s convinced management is committed to winning a championship each season.

As far as Osaka’s offseason moves, he said he expects the team will re-sign big man Wayne Marshall and versatile forward Lawrence Blackledge and also make a push for standout guard Matt Lottich, who played for the Evessa’s three championship teams before spending a season in Germany and the past two with the HeatDevils.

“It’s going to be an exciting season next year, man,” he said a day before his summer vacation begins.

Confidence needed: Evessa coach Ryan Blackwell is certain that guard Shota Konno is capable of scoring double-digit point totals on a consistent basis. But the coach said that Konno’s performances are affected by confidence, citing that when the guard’s confidence is lacking his game suffers, too.

Konno, who averaged 6.3 points in 36 games in the regular season, scored 22 in the third-place game on Sunday at the Final Four. It was indicative of his abilities, Blackwell said after the team’s 35-19 season, including the playoffs.

“I think it’s just mental; his confidence has to be there,” Blackwell told reporters. “And I tell him all the time, ‘Shoot with confidence.’ And he has to be able to create, he has to work on his ball handling, so he can get his shot off a little bit more, because he’s athletic enough, he’s fast enough, he’s quick enough to do those things.”

In the same post-game interview, Blackwell said point guard Kenny Satterfield, who stepped in as the Evessa’s lead guard after Saitama’s season concluded prematurely, is a vital part of Osaka’s rotation. And, Blackwell added, he would like Satterfield to be back in Kansai.

“He’s a true point guard,” Blackwell said on Sunday. “Like I said, one of the things that we struggled with was a good zone and having someone to create. Teams couldn’t really guard us man to man, so they played zone and we had trouble getting the ball to people.

“He does a great job of facilitating and getting guys easy shots. … He just makes the game easier. He’s a true point guard, the best point guard that I’ve seen in this league for sure.”

Does Blackwell expect Satterfield to be back with the Evessa? He said he’s not sure, adding that it’s Satterfield and the team’s decision, along with the Broncos, who hold his rights.

Season of growth: Here’s how Blackwell, who led Osaka to a second-place finish in the West and their sixth consecutive Final Four as a rookie coach, summed up the experience of the recently concluded season:

“It was an unbelievable year. Great experience just to coach a team that I played for with a lot of guys and known them for a long time. Just to stay within this organization was great for me. I learned a lot. I think I grew as a coach (doing) the little things — game management. And it was just a wonderful experience for me.”

Future plans: The bj-league, showing respect for history and honoring one of their own, should consider renaming its Coach of the Year award in the future. One idea: The Kazuo Nakamura Award. The veteran mentor guided thePhoenix to a pair of titles and a 77.2 winning percentage in the team’s first three seasons in the bj-league. Great numbers.

Spotted in the crowd: Japan national team head coach Tom Wisman attended Sunday’s Hamamatsu-Ryukyu championship game.

Did you know?: Forward Jeremy Tyler, who played for the Tokyo Apache in 2010-11, received extensive media exposure during and after the NBA’s pre-draft workouts last week in Chicago, including stories by SLAM magazine and Yahoo.com.

Rumor mill: The league could see a big change, a big reduction, in the number of foreigners on teams next season — that is, if a four-foreigner rule per team is established. And, as one coach predicted it’s now the time for “the second-quarter rule (using two foreigners and three Japanese) for maybe one more year.”

Then, he said, the league “(will) move to three imports, two on the court for the whole game.”

Closing commentary: Unlike numerous American players who fled from Japan after the March 11 twin natural disasters and Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis, ex-coach Bob Pierce of the Akita Northern Happinets didn’t go anywhere. He reminded everyone that he had a job to do, and he did it.

In fact, all of his players under contract completed the season. And in their spare time the Happinets were actively involved in raising funds for Tohoku and conducted a number of hoop clinics and community projects throughout the region to raise people’s spirits.

Which is why it’s a complete disgrace that the Happinets fired Pierce after one season. Expansion teams don’t win 65 or 70 percent of their games. It’s not realistic. The Happinets went 18-32 — not horrible, not great — but they now have something to build on for the future. Pierce should’ve been given one more year to lay the foundation for the team’s future; they owed him that for his commitment to the team, the community and the league during a time of widespread suffering. The entire Happinets organization, including Pierce, worked tirelessly to help set the right example that sports matter during times of crisis. Photographs showing the combined efforts of Akita and the Albirex made a powerful statement, too, that teams can be united for the common good. Just ask the Sendai 89ers about that.

While the Apache and Broncos ended their seasons early but pitched in to help with various fundraising efforts, Pierce’s team worked on both things simultaneously, knowing that they could be a force for good on and off the court and for the nation’s mental recovery as well. The Happinets’ decision, however, regardless of the reason, smacks of a team seeking a quick fix (enter Nakamura, the soon-to-be-named bench boss) and forgetting about common decency and respect. This much is certain: This is a low point in Happinets history and will be a dark chapter in the team’s history for years to come.

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an e-mail to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp