Fazekas, Diouf sparked major turnaround for Brave Thunders

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

After a dismal 2011-12 campaign, the Toshiba Brave Thunders are the JBL’s undisputed Cinderella team this season

The addition of frontcourt standouts Nick Fazekas and Mamadou Diouf was one of the biggest factors that sparked their rapid rise.

Takuya Kita, the club’s second-year head coach, called the pair the team’s “mainstays,” and they have made enormous contributions to Toshiba’s success.

“We finished last, last year, but our confidence has grown as we’ve kept winning this year,” Kita said after the Brave Thunders edged the defending JBL champion Toyota Motors Alvark 64-62 in Game 3 of the playoff semifinals last Tuesday in Kawasaki to clinch their first JBL Finals berth in eight years. “And we added Madou and Nick and we don’t struggle in scoring with them.”

Fazekas has certainly been a big acquisition for Toshiba, which finished the regular season in third place with a 29-13 record, including 16 victories in its last 18 games. The 210-cm center led the league in scoring (21.6 points per game) and was second in rebounding (12.1). Toshiba scored a league-worst 68.4 points a game last year, but with him improved to a league-best 78.6 a year later.

Fazekas, who was selected by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round (34th overall) of the 2007 NBA Draft and later played in Europe and NBA Development League, missed out on receiving the regular-season MVP accolade, which went to J.R. Sakuragi, whose Aisin Sea Horses had the JBL’s best record (34-8). But some people said Fazekas was just as deserving.

It wouldn’t bother Fazekas, however. For him, basketball is, simply put, a team game.

“You can’t really put it on one guy,” Fazekas, 27, said. “It’s a nice gesture that everyone thinks that (he guided the team to the Finals), but we’ve got five guys out there and there’s a lot going into every game, there’s a lot going into every day, with the coaches, training staff, my teammates.

“I strive to be a very integral part of the team, but without the four other guys, I wouldn’t win any games by myself.”

Meanwhile, though he doesn’t score or clean the boards as many times as Fazekas, 35-year-old veteran Diouf has played a significant role for his team, doing the intangible things that lead to success.

The Senegalese native, who had previously played for the Sendai 89ers (2005-07) and Saitama Broncos (2007-08), both in the rival bj-league, and the JBL’s Levanga Hokkaido (2011-12), said that he was more of an offensive player when he was younger. But now, he admitted, he is more of a complete player that chips in for the team in any aspect of the game.

“I’ve grown up. I make adjustments, share the ball and play defense more,” said Diouf, who obtained a Japanese citizenship two years ago, which helps the team immensely because only one foreign player is allowed to play on the court in the JBL. “Winning is more important than personal stats.”

Diouf, a 198-cm forward/center, added that in order to win, you have to dedicate yourself to your team by hustling.

“You’ve got to do a lot of stuff that don’t show up in the stats, (such as) making extra passes, hustling on defense, hustling for your teammates,” said Diouf, who averaged 10.0 points and 5.5 rebounds in 26 games played this year. “Those things don’t show in the stats, but people that know basketball know that you are an asset. I guess I’ve made those changes compared to when I was in the bj-league.”

Of course, Toshiba’s mission has not been fully accomplished yet for Fazekas, Diouf and their teammates. To do so, they must defeat the Sea Horses, who have a strong inside game with with big men Sakuragi, Kevin Young and Ryvon Covile, in the best-of-five championship series.

“Aisin is tough inside with J.R., Kevin and Covile,” Fazekas said. “But with me, Madou and Chris (Moss), we like our chances. We got a lot of respect for Aisin and coach (Kimikazu) Suzuki, and I’m looking forward to the battle.”

The JBL Finals begin on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No.2.