Basketball / BJ-League

Ex-Apache coach Bryant hired to lead struggling Fukuoka

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Joe Bryant, the now-defunct Tokyo Apache’s original head coach, will take over as the Rizing Fukuoka’s next bench boss, the bj-league club announced on Monday evening.

Bryant is scheduled to return to the sideline for the Western Conference club’s next home series, Jan. 17-18, against the Shimane Susanoo Magic. Fukuoka faces the host Shiga Lakestars this weekend before a bye the following week.

“I am looking forward to the challenge,” the 60-year-old Bryant, a former NBA (1975-83), Italian League (1984-91) and French League (1991-92) forward, told The Japan Times on Tuesday.

Bryant, whose five-time NBA champion son, Kobe is among the most popular players around the globe, coached the Apache from 2005-09, compiling a 92-84 regular-season record, three winning seasons, three playoff appearances and two runnerup finishes (2007-08 and 2008-09). New ownership, besieged by money woes, did not renew Bryant’s contract after the 2008-09 season.

Meanwhile, the Rizing Fukuoka, who at 6-18 have the worst record in the 10-team West, have had a revolving door in the coaching ranks since Atsushi Kanazawa departed to lead the TGI D-Rise of the NBDL (the JBL2’s successor) after the Kyushu club’s championship runnerup season in 2012-13. Last fall, he was replaced by American Mack Tuck, who stepped down in the preseason before coaching a regular-season game, citing family issues. Kimitoshi Sano, Tuck’s assistant, took over and led the team to an 11-17 record before being demoted back to assistant and replaced as the sideline supervisor by Canadian James Duncan.

Under Duncan, the Rizing finished the 2013-14 campaign strong, going 15-9 to secure a spot in the postseason for the seventh straight season, a run that began under fiery mentor John Neumann’s high-scoring expansion squad.

But after a massive roster exodus of veteran players in the offseason, the Rizing stumbled out of the gates, winning two of its first 13 games this fall. And four wins in its last nine games were not enough to save Duncan, who made way for his assistant, 25-year-old Ken Hamanaka, to fill the top spot — that is, until Bryant’s unexpected hiring.

Fukuoka dropped two overtime games last weekend to the host Gunma Crane Thunders, 87-79 and 84-80.

The Rizing’s most well-known current players are leading scorer Josh Peppers (20.8 points per game), who is in his third stint with the team, and eight-time All-Star guard Cohey Aoki, who starred for the Apache from 2005-11. Peppers was one of Neumann’s key stars in the Rizing’s run to the Final Four as an expansion team.

Longtime Apache star and current free agent John “Helicopter” Humphrey, who played for the Saitama Broncos from 2011-14, said he would welcome the opportunity to play under Bryant, who is nicknamed “Jellybean,” again. Before coming to Japan in 2005, in the bj-league’s inaugural season, Humphrey played on Bryant-coached teams (Las Vegas, Boston) in the present-day ABA.

“We talk all the time,” Humphrey told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “He wasn’t only my coach, he is like a father figure to me.”

Asked who was the catalyst for Bryant’s return to the bj-league, Humphrey said, “Not sure who had a role, but I think it’s great for the league that he is back. He is a great coach. Give him a season or two and I am sure he will build a powerhouse again. . . . I do know the way things went down in Tokyo left a bad taste in his mouth.”

Versatile forward Damieon “Dray” Baker, a fixture on Bryant’s Apache squads, said he’s not shocked his former coach is returning to Japan.

“I haven’t touch based with Jelly . . . yet,” Baker told The Japan Times on Tuesday.

But, he added, “the biggest (reason) for Jelly receiving the job is because he is a winning coach in that league, and he is a player’s coach.”

Bryant returned to Japan for the 2010-11 JBL season to lead the Rera Kamuy Hokkaido (now called Levanga Hokkaido of the NBL). He was axed in January 2011 after a 6-16 start as the team’s debts piled up and team management was booted from the league. The Rera Kamuy were taken over by a league holding company to finish the season.

Weeks before the Apache played their final game on March 10, 2011, Bryant sat courtside at Yoyogi Gymnasium No. 2 alongside his wife, Pam, and then-Tokyo owner Michael Lerch, watching ex-NBA coach Bob Hill lead the Apache.

Since his departure from Japan, Bryant has coached two clubs in the fledgling ASEAN League: Bangkok Cobras (2012) and Chang Thailand Slammers (2013). He also led the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks in two stints as head coach (2005-06, 2011).

In an April 2006 meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan, Bryant told the gathered media, “I kind of hate to be called a coach. I like to be called a teacher. I like to see players grow and learn about the game.”

Center Nick Davis, who played his final game for the Apache in 2009,  agreed with former teammates Humphrey and Baker that Bryant’s success with Tokyo was not by accident.

“I’m not sure what prompted Joe’s return (to the bj-league), but he showed he could win with exciting play and our going to back-to-back championship games,” Davis, a University of Arkansas alum, told The Japan Times on Tuesday.

“It was because of Joe that I went to Apache,” he added, referring to his move from the rival Niigata Albirex BB for the 2007-08 season. “And for me as a player, he brought the fun back for me with basketball because I was losing interest.”

The retired 38-year-old standout said, “I don’t know if I could ever go back to playing in Japan, but if I were to, it would have to be for Joe only.”