Head coach Bill Cartwright returned the Osaka Evessa to respectability after a remarkable plunge in the season’s first four months.
The Evessa, who were 5-19 before Cartwright showed up in Osaka in January, had fallen to heights never experienced before in the three-time bj-league champion’s proud history. But in the season’s final 28 games, Osaka transformed into a playoff-caliber team no foe could take lightly.
Cartwright’s numbers: 17 wins and 11 losses and a positive jolt of interest in the team here and abroad, including an Associated Press feature in April that was featured in prominent media outlets spanning the globe.
And if the season had concluded at the end of May, instead of in late April, the Evessa might have moved into playoff position — and stayed there.
“We probably needed about another two or three weeks to catch the team in front of us (in the standings),” the former Chicago Bulls coach said by telephone from Osaka on Monday evening.
Cartwright left Kansai Airport for Chicago on Tuesday, and admitted he’s eager to see his family. Cartwright’s future with the Evessa has not been finalized, though he said he had a pleasant conversation with team owner Koichi Sato before his departure.
“I’m going to take some time (to make a decision),” Cartwright told Hoop Scoop.
Right now, he said, “I don’t know.”
To a man, what is also uncertain at this point is this: Are the Evessa willing to give Cartwright a pay raise to come back, especially after he delivered impressive results?
Indeed, the league’s profile was raised when Cartwright joined Osaka; it was a public relations coup. Furthermore, the Evessa transformed into one of the league’s most compelling stories in its eighth season, starting on Jan. 21, a day after the All-Star Game, when Cartwright was named the new coach, Takao Furuya’s replacement.
Cartwright instilled a demanding practice routine, which was sorely lacking before his arrival, and shored up the team’s shortcomings on offense and defense. Improvement in games was noticeable quite early, and players’ confidence rose at the same time.
The 55-year-old longtime NBA center called the past four months “a great experience.”
“I didn’t know what to expect when I first got here,” he admitted. “Our team definitely had to come together quickly.”
As reported previously in The Japan Times, longer, more intense practices were a vital part of Cartwright’s efforts to reshape the Evessa into a winning team. Or as he described it, “We made practice a priority.”
The hard work paid off. Osaka rattled off 10 straight wins from March 3 to April 6, and until the next-to-last week of the season had a chance to finish above .500. A remarkable statistic when you recall the Evessa were 14 games under .500 when Cartwright took over as the bench boss.
An eye-opener occurred for Cartwright in his second weekend in charge, when the Evessa dropped a pair of road games against the reigning champion Ryukyu Golden Kings (78-65 and 62-60 on Feb. 2 and 3) in Okinawa. Though the Evessa lost those games, Cartwright’s message was heard loud and clear, and it helped elevate the team’s confidence.
“I told the guys, ‘This is going to be the best team in the West. … (And) our goal should be to beat anybody,’ ” he remembered saying.
“It was a good learning experience … and we were able to get it together. Our guys worked very hard.”
Reflecting on the team’s rapid turnaround, Cartwright cited the strong performance of power forward Mike Bell and the emergence of guard Shun Watanuki, who became one of the league’s most improved players in the season’s final three months.
“The big thing was they tried really hard to do what was asked of them,” Cartwright said, assessing his team’s play.
Putting his own stamp on the team meant that Cartwright used his bench players early and often, showing no reluctance to make substitutions at any stage of a game.
“I like to play a lot of players,” he said. “That’s going to make us better in the long run.”
That improvement included a more efficient offense and a better ability to play lockdown defense for longer stretches of time.
“I’m proud of the fact that we could become a team other teams are talking about,” Cartwright said.
To him, this signaled the fact that the Evessa had made significant progress.
For early January to early May, there was time for fun, too. Cartwright attended a Hanshin Tigers home game a few weeks ago at Koshien Stadium, Japan’s historic baseball shrine. He visited Tokyo Dome for a Yomiuri Giants home game last week. He didn’t have the opportunity to attend a grand sumo tournament, but wanted to.
He was, however, able to see Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa and Tokyo Skytree tower, and beautiful Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and the Ryoan-ji rock garden temple in Kyoto.
The enthusiastic Tigers fans and Giants supporters at the aforementioned home games left quite an impression on Cartwright.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “Every baseball fan should experience a Japanese baseball game. It’s just something you’ve got to see.”
The nonstop clapping, the organized chants for all batters and the enthusiasm of the fans captured Big Bill’s attention. He was especially impressed by the traditional release of thousands of balloons during the seventh-inning stretch at Koshien.
“It was amazing,” he said in a excited tone.
For a man who has accomplished so much in basketball — All-American center at the University of San Francisco, No. 3 overall draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1979, a pro career that lasted until 1995, three NBA championship rings as the Bulls’ starting center (1990-91, 1991-92 and 1992-93) and two more rings as a Phil Jackson assistant on Chicago’s fifth and sixth title teams of the ’90s — Cartwright sees fundamental flaws in the way the bj-league operates.
He views the league’s scheduling policy, with teams having up to 12 home venues (the Gunma Crane Thunders’ schedule this season) for their 26 home contests as a colossal failure. And most teams use about half as many home gyms.
“Who are you representing?” Cartwright asked, referring to a major problem the league has faced since Day One.
“If you are using seven or eight gyms (for games), who are you representing? Nobody has a home. You’ve got to have a home.
“I don’t know how they are going to do it, but they have got to figure it out,” he continued. “The league’s going to have to figure out how to find teams a home.
“For this league to be successful, they are going to have to change their way of thinking. .. Teams have got to have a home. That’s got to be the No.1 priority.”
Cartwright said, “The real issue is every team should have one gym, which I think would bolster every team’s financial situation.”
That example carries over to baseball, too, including the major leagues. The Chicago Cubs haven’t won the World Series since 1908, but their long-suffering fans still show up in droves at Wrigley Field and have developed strong ties to the famous ballpark generation after generation. “People want to go to Wrigley Field, they love the experience of going to Wrigley Field,” he noted.
Building a bunch of new basketball arenas isn’t the answer, Cartwright insisted.
“There are plenty of places to play basketball,” he said during our hour-long conversation. “But they’ve got to figure out how to integrate basketball into society.”
Team owners, league executives and local politicians need to come together to solve this issue, Cartwright said.
So what’s the key?
“A relationship with a town to have a team for all home games for a season,” Cartwright said, “in order for basketball to be important for Japan and leave an imprint (on the sporting landscape).”
Saying it’s “too difficult” to change the system that’s in place to reserve a public gym that’s used for various sports and leagues for people of all ages plus non-sports events does nothing to elevate pro basketball’s profile in Japan.
“You have to recruit some political connections,” Cartwright said. “I would imagine and hope that it’s a bigger vision here .. and you are going to have to recruit the people that will make it happen, motivate people’s spirits to make it happen.”
While we discussed several of the bj-league’s shortcomings, I asked him what he thinks of the league’s usage of the synthetic SportCourt for the majority of games. (Note: on wooden floors, when a player falls he doesn’t slide as easily after the fall; but on the slicker SportCourt that can create additional risks for injury.)
“It’s terrible,” he said, a message directed to the league’s big wigs. “Guys are falling down and stuff, and they should know that guys are putting their careers at risk. … It should not be allowed. It’s dangerous to play on.”
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Coaching in Japan can be viewed as an adventure for a man from the other side of the Pacific Ocean. And Cartwright realizes the opportunity “is not for everybody.” But, he said, “it’s good if people are willing to come over and take a chance. You’re going to be a long, long way from home, but you have to be willing to take a chance.”
By the time this article is published, Cartwright will have returned to the Chicago metropolitan area for some R&R and work. He owns a local restaurant and is chairman of CartwrightDownes Inc., which specializes in background checks.
Before his mind shifted back to his life in Chicago — for the next few months, maybe longer — Cartwright offered a few more thoughts on things the league ought to focus on improving.
Issuing a challenge for the league’s general managers to invest in better import players, he had this to say: “The best players on your team are not going to be Japanese, so to me there are a lot of good players not working in the United States. They’ve got to do a better job establishing relationships with agents. …
“And they’ve got to seek better players for this league.”
Cartwright said starting centers should be averaging a minimum of 18 points and 12 rebounds a game in the bj-league, numbers that would underline their major value to their teams.
NBA history predates the upstart bj-league by several decades and includes the merger with four ABA teams in the 1970s. That said, for the greater good of the Japanese game, Cartwright believes the NBL (the rebranded JBL) and bj-league must scrap their own agendas and come together to create one league.
“These guys are going to have to merge,” he said. “It’s going to have to happen.”