Before sitting down for dinner on Tuesday evening, Iwate Big Bulls coach Vlasios Vlaikidis spoke in measured tones about the difficult work of building a team from scratch.
In a telephone interview with The Japan Times, the Greek coach revealed his modest goals for the upcoming season.
“We are a new team,” Vlaikidis said. “We started everything from zero, and really we tried to do and organize the clubs in all segments, from the administration, for the team, for practice, for training, everything. Everything is new and we need some time to make everything in the correct direction.”
The Big Bulls will make their bj-league debut on Sept. 17, playing an exhibition game against the visiting Niigata Albirex BB. It’s one small step in getting the team prepared for the 52-game season. Iwate will then face the host Akita Northern Happinets on Sept. 19.
“We want the people to come and see us,” said Vlaikidis, issuing an invitation to all of Tohoku’s residents, “because this will be the first step for us to be in the bj-league.”
Vlaikidis said the team expects to complete its roster by the first week of September. This will give him time to begin implementing a bigger portion of the team’s offensive and defensive strategies.
In the past three-plus weeks, he’s stuck to basic concepts in his work with the team’s six Japanese players under contract: guards Makoto Sawaguchi, Tasuku Namizato, Atsushi Nogami and Yoshiaki Yamamoto and forwards Shinya Chiba and Hayato Kantake. Individual shooting drills and other aspects of the game — three-on-one, two-on-zero, one-on-one, etc. — have given Vlaikidis a chance to teach.
Avid followers of the league will recall that Sawaguchi, a 19-year-old who grew up in Morioka, played for Akita last season. He was the league’s youngest player, but now will be expected to contribute right away for his hometown team.
Vlaikidis said the Big Bulls will have a limited budget for their inaugural season and each player will have to be productive.
Looking ahead to the season, he said the team’s main target “is to go as far as we can and more . . . and we will focus to play better game by game.”
The veteran coach, who worked under Shimane Susanoo Magic bench boss and former Japan national team coach Zeljko Pavlicevic while with Panathinaikos Athens in the early 1990s, vows to do his part to make the Big Bulls an integral part of Morioka and Iwate’s sporting scene.
“I hope to be a big part of the community,” he said.
Speaking without hesitation, he also reflected on the overall situation in Tohoku and the region’s recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake and the devastating tsunami.
“It was a very big tragedy,” Vlaikidis said. “A lot of people lost (their family members). (The survivors), they saved their lives, but they lost everything. They had to start again from zero. This is a very big tragedy, but it made me feel much more responsible for this team.”
The Big Bulls, conducting basketball clinics and holding meet-and-greet sessions and related activities, have made a positive impact in recent months without playing a real game yet.
“They love basketball, they really love basketball,” was how Vlaikidis described the Iwate fans.
Even if Tohoku residents are focused on rebuilding their lives, Vlaikidis recognizes his team’s survival will depend on healthy attendance at its games.
“Without our games, without our fans here, it will be very difficult to play, and I hope that they will support us because we need them. We need our people from Morioka, from Iwate, to support us. . . . They will be the sixth player on the court.”
In his first extended interview with this newspaper, Vlaikidis also offered his thoughts on the Sendai 89ers’ rebuilding efforts after March 11.
“All the staff and the (team) president, they found the power after this big catastrophe to continue with a team, to make the team (again) and participate in the bj-league,” he said. “I would like to congratulate them for showing this power that they have inside of them.
“This is a very big step that they do this against (all of these obstacles) — against tragedy, against big catastrophe, against the psychology of the people.”
Have the 89ers been a symbol of inspiration for Vlaikidis?
“Yes, it is from deep within my heart,” he said.
Rule change: The one-and-one free-throw rule, which enabled teams to foul poor free-throw shooters time after time when their foes were in the bonus, has been eliminated. This season, the bj-league will now adapt the NBA’s way of doing things — the two free-throw policy.
This is progress, and has been a bone of contention for many around the league for several seasons.