FUNABASHI, CHIBA PREF. – The bj-league’s Eastern Conference is overflowing with newness this season.
Wherever you look, the conference’s 10 teams have collectively formed a new identity, from the four expansion teams to the Tokyo Apache’s departure to the coaching carousel that has ushered in a new campaign.
As part of this big shift taking place, the Chiba Jets, one of those expansion teams, begins their existence. Eric Gardow, who was leading the Qatar Sports Club at this time a year ago, was hired to build a successful Jets team from scratch.
And now, the team’s inaugural season features a unique opportunity: the beginning.
“There’s a lot to be accomplished,” guard Maurice Hargrow said on a recent afternoon at Funabashi Arena. “And the beauty of it is it’s never been done before. So anything we do is going to be a first and anything we do, I think, is going to be a positive, not just for our basketball organization but for the Chiba community as well.”
“Our biggest challenge will be establishing an identity,” forward Jamel Staten said.
The Jets play eight of their first 12 games at home. They begin their first season on the road against the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, winners of back-to-back championships, on Saturday. They return home to take on another first-year club, the Yokohama B-Corsairs, on Oct. 22-23, followed by a series against the visiting Takamatsu Five Arrows on Oct. 29-30.
The Jets roster includes a few names familiar to casual bj-league followers: center George Leach, who has plied his craft playing for the Takamatsu Five Arrows, Ryukyu Golden Kings, Saitama Broncos and Ryukyu Golden Kings; forward Tomoya “Chomo” Nakamura, formerly of the Apache, as well as his ex-Tokyo teammate and frontcourt mate Reina Itakura; and another ex-Apache player, guard Kensuke Tanaka, who came into his own, brimming with confidence and developing into the league’s officially recognized Most Improved Player last season.
Assistant coach Geoffrey Katsuhisa, who served as then-coach Bob Hill’s interpreter last season for the Apache, brings knowledge of the league to the team, too.
Among the Jets players, guards Hiroki Sato, a longtime Oita HeatDevils player, and Hayato Shirata and guard/forward Mitsuhiro Kamezaki are from Chiba.
Center Gaston Moliva played for Gardow in Qatar last season. The 213-cm veteran attended Atlantic-10 Conference school Richmond.
Hargow, a University of Minnesota product, also played for Gardow while with the Qatar Sports Club, so the new Chiba team will have a few guys who’ve experienced Gardow’s ways and can help the other players get acclimated to his style of coaching.
To put the building blocks in place for the long season, Gardow admits he’s juggling dual roles: teacher and coach.
“I have a little of John Wooden in me where I’m just more concerned about us,” Gardow said.
He paused and then added, “And every chance I get (I’ll teach them). I don’t want to take anything for granted. We have so much to learn and a lot to cover. It takes a lot to make up our own identity this first year. We don’t have any right now. We don’t even know who we are. We know we’re the Chiba Jets, but we’re in the same boat as a lot of teams.
“And even all the teams that have changed coaches, they are trying to form a new identity even if they have some foundation. We just don’t have that.”
What the team does have at this point is enthusiastic support from local basketball boosters, local and prefectural government officials and Chiba. “And we need that to move forward,” said Gardow, who hails from Wisconsin. “It’s exciting to see. It gives them something to be proud about, but it’s going to take some time as a first-year team.”
Preparations for the season have gone well, according to Leach, who attended Indiana University, the same school as longtime bj-league stars Lynn Washington (Osaka Evessa) and Jeff Newton (Ryukyu Golden Kings).
“We watch film as a team,” Leach said before a recent practice. “We do breakdowns of everything we do. We go over steps A, B, C and D, which is great for everybody, because you’ve got to know A before you can get to D.”
It’ll take time for the Jets to develop team chemistry. For now, everyone is working to develop trust and camaraderie.
“A lot of us know each other,” Leach said, referring to past interaction on the court as opponents or teammates on other clubs. “But everything is just brand new.
“It shows that all our skill levels are high. It’s just that we’ve just got to get all those skill levels to go together.”
Gardow has sought Leach’s opinion about the East’s other teams and asked him about players on those clubs. Or as Leach put it: “I give him my opinion on it. I hope it’s good.
“He’s very patient. He has a teaching background so you can tell he’s used to taking his time and building things up. He understands that this is a new team. . . . His mind-set is perfect for this organization, because they want to build as well.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Gardow gives his players too much free rein. Leach has observed his boss telling the players to “pick it up” on a number of occasions, “and guys respond to it and it’s good.”
Guard Takaki Ishida said players have gained confidence in their individual roles and learning what Gardow expects from them.
“We’re developing our team unity and basketball style, step by step,” said Ishida, a former JBL Toyota Motors player. “In addition, we’re learning various systems of offense and defense.”
Creating a team requires a strong emphasis on defense, Sato said, recounting Gardow’s message to his players. “As expected, team defense is the first priority, then offense,” he added. “Making a new team is a difficult challenge, but everyone was must work together to strengthen it.”
Qualifying for the playoffs is Chiba’s primary goal this season. But Leach, for one, doesn’t want to dwell on what might happen in May when there are 52 regular-season games to be played first.
“I hate looking that far ahead,” he said. “If we keep progressing the way we are a day at a time, take it a game at a time, then who knows what’ll happen in the future.”
During the recent practice, Gardow encouraged his players and pointed out their mistakes as well as what they were doing well.
“Be aggressive,” he said repeatedly, watching his players work on offensive and defensive drills.
After one well-executed sequence that ended when Hargrow nailed a pull-up jumper, Gardow blurted out, “All of you are capable of doing that.”
Similar words were heard during a team film session as they reviewed a recent scrimmage. “Defense, it starts with communication,” Gardow said to a room full of attentive players.
They watched more film. Another solid sequence was shown on the screen. Gardow paused to point out why he liked a certain play. “There you go,” he said. “That’s perfect position.”
A lot of work has gone into building the Chiba Jets — choosing the team’s colors and nickname, hiring a head coach and assembling a roster of players, for instance — but perhaps the most important thing the group has done so far is put in the long hours necessary to get prepared for the long season.
“You can’t win a championship in the preseason, but you can sure lose it if you don’t prepare,” Gardow said, while citing Sato and Itakura as leaders who place big demands on their teammates to do the work needed to be successful.
Realistically, an expansion team isn’t expected to win a title in year one, but, as Gardow said on several occasions, that’s when a team lays the foundation for the future. And that’s really what the 2011-12 Chiba Jets season is all about.