Sure, there are others who can call Jim Boeheim a mentor or a source of inspiration.
In the bj-league, only Gunma Crane Thunders coach Ryan Blackwell can really make that claim.
Blackwell, after all, played for the Syracuse University men’s basketball bench boss from 1997-2000 before becoming a professional player.
Now, years later, Boeheim continues to achieve success at the upstate New York school, where Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown once starred on the football and lacrosse teams. On Wednesday, Syracuse defeated Rutgers 78-53 and Boeheim recorded his 903rd career victory as a head coach (he’s lost 305 games), surpassing the inimitable Bob Knight’s 902 to move into No. 2 on the NCAA Division I all-time win list (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has 940 wins).
That accomplishment impressed Blackwell, a former forward who’s busy preparing his first-year club for a weekend showdown against the visiting Iwate Big Bulls.
“I emailed Coach Boeheim after he reached 900 wins,” Blackwell told The Japan Times on Thursday. “It’s a great accomplishment, especially winning all those games at one school. I’m impressed with his longevity and consistency. I’m fortunate that I was able to learn from a legendary coach and that I was a part of his success.”
The 68-year-old Boeheim’s longevity is equally impressive. He’s been the Syracuse head coach since 1976, the year Blackwell was born.
What does Blackwell like about Boeheim’s leadership style?
“His style and approach to basketball are very simple, which I’ve always liked,” said Blackwell, who took over as Gunma coach after the team had fired Tadashi Hayashi following his 0-8 stint in charge. “Many coaches, I think, tend to micromanage and cram players with too many details. His approach was simple and to the point. He wasn’t a big talker but his points and suggestions were very clear. His overall knowledge of the game and eye for talent have always been at the top.”
The Crane Thunders (4-18) are looking to emulate the success of Syracuse in the comings months and years.
It all starts with the basics.
Boeheim, to his credit, opts to see beyond the box score and view the game as, well, something special — about people.
“To me, this game is not about numbers, it really isn’t,” Boeheim was quoted as saying in an Associated Press article after earning his 902nd win on Wednesday. “It’s not about how many points you score or the assists you get. It’s about all the people, all the people you meet on the way. It’s been an unbelievable experience.”
Striving for perfection: Iwate sideline supervisor Dai Oketani carried the experience of winning two titles with the Ryukyu Golden Kings with him when he took over as the Big Bulls coach after last season.
After a recent road defeat to the Tokyo Cinq Reves, Oketani spoke about how he doesn’t take losing lightly.
“I’m upset how we played today. We cost the game by ourselves,” Oketani said after a 91-86 setback on Dec. 22. “I want to ask these guys who they are playing against. It comes down to that after all. We lost a game in this way when we lose. You never win games when you battle with the referees. If we keep this thing up, we’ll keep losing. We certainly could’ve won the game. It was a close game, but we couldn’t put pressure on the opponent in the end. We needed to be more patient. You don’t want to play to win one single game, but you play for a championship. You have to play to deserve that you are a championship team.”
Since that game, the Big Bulls have rattled off three straight victories.
One key for Iwate, a second-year franchise, as the season progresses is for Japanese players to be vocal leaders, Oketani said.
“Yes, I want them to do it,” Oketani said in the post-game interview, “but these Japanese veterans aren’t so vocal yet. They don’t speak so loudly yet. So yeah, I want them to be more vocal and loud. But still, I believe they will be more valuable by talking to younger guys when the team is down in a game.”
Based on his track record of success, Oketani commands respect in Iwate.
Just ask Big Bulls guard Kenichi Takahashi, who spent the previous six seasons with the Sendai 89ers.
“He knows how to win and knows defense in order to achieve it,” Takahashi said. “Compared to my past years in the league, I’ve come to rethink how important defense is and my mind for defense is actually getting bigger. Also, we’ve been able to adjust to what coach demands us to do well. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve been able to come up with positive results so far.”
Asked to pinpoint the team’s strengths and weaknesses, Takahashi responded by saying, “Our strength is, we can constantly score offensively. Coach tells us to go back to defense when our offense isn’t working, but actually our offense’s been good because we can score from anywhere. And as far as what we need to improve is, we need to improve our defense. We could be better in rebounding and (handling) small things such as chasing loose balls to give us more time to have the ball.
“If we can do that, our defense will be even better and that will perhaps make our offense better, too.”
Catching up with … Cohey Aoki: The Tokyo guard, who was named to to the All-Star team for an unprecedented seventh time last month, finds it hard for himself to analyze his play. Of course, he can look at the numbers: 19 games, 14.8 points (scoring average, tops among the league’s native sons), 63, assists, 29 turnovers, 51 percent shooting from 2-point range, 41.1 percent on 3s and 94.9 on 3s.
“My assessment is perhaps how you people (the media) assess me,” Aoki said. “Well, actually, I’m not sure how I’m assessed. But I feel like I’ve still got a long way to develop on the floor — that is, to play and guide the team as a point guard, how I’m supposed to lead the team. Off the court, I don’t think I have any issues, so it’s important to keep it up.”
As one of the older players on the team, the 32-year-old Aoki, a bj-league player since its inception in 2005, has an import role as a Cinq Reves leader.
And he doesn’t shy away from that role.
“Right, I did this in Osaka last year, too,” he said, responding to a general question on the topic. “Being on a brand new team, you naturally want to know everything about your teammates. I may be a bit exaggerating, but unless you know your teammates’ backgrounds, like what kind of family they have, what kind of life they’ve spent, things like that, you are not going to fully anticipate what they are going to do at (certain times). At least, I want to know, and if we can tighten our bonds by sharing about ourselves, it leads to our performance in playing basketball. So I think it’s really important.”
So you actually know what kind of family your teammates have?
“Well, I know where they are from, which high schools they went to, what kind of food they like, things like that,” Aoki said. “That’s something that I believe is important throughout my eight-year experience in this league.”
Aoki, the most recognizable player in the league, believes he’s still growing as a player. Seeking advice off the court is one way to do that.
Or as he put it: “In myself, I feel like I’ve done pretty much everything as far as basketball. Of course I could still make my shooting accuracy better and my mental state better. … I’ve hired a mental coach and been training on that part, too, so I don’t have problems too much, though. … But what (things) I probably need to do better are defense and chasing the ball. I need to improve on talking to teammates as well, but that can easily be improved.
Also, I train corresponding with my age so I won’t get hurt. Unless I get serious injuries, I think I can perform to a certain level.”
Upcoming games: This week’s Saturday-Sunday matchups are: Chiba vs. Shinshu, Yokohama vs. Niigata (call it a red-hot matchup: the B-Corsairs and Albirex BB have won eight and seven straight games, respectively), Shiga vs. Miyazaki, Saitama vs. Sendai, Oita vs. Hamamatsu, Toyama vs. Osaka, Takamatsu vs. Tokyo and Fukuoka vs. Shimane.
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Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.