Sunrockers make dramatic turnaround this season, eye NBL title

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Hitachi Sunrockers entered this season, having improved their roster with some key acquisitions, while they hired a new head coach.

Compared to last season, when they went 18-36 under then-coach Tim Lewis and failed to reach the playoffs, they now have the talent and depth to be a championship-caliber team.

But a team like this one, with a lot of new guys, usually needs some time to develop the chemistry to win games, too. In fact, a team like the Sunrockers often struggles.

That wasn’t the case for the Sunrockers, who posted the league-best 45-9 regular-season record.

The Eastern Conference club, which will face the Chiba Jets in the first round of the playoffs at Ota City General Gymnasium starting Friday, signed head coach Michael Olson, forward/center Josh Heytvelt, forwards Ira Brown and Aki Chambers, both of whom played in the bj-league (Toyama Grouses and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, respectively) last season, and guard Hiroyuki Kinoshita.

While those Americans (Chambers was born to an American father and Japanese mother) were a big part of the team’s successful year, as Heytvelt and Brown were the top two scorers, the addition of Kinoshita was as significant to put the squad together.

Kinoshita, a veteran point guard who led the Wakayama Trians to the NBL Finals last year, said that he didn’t hesitate to speak out what he needed to his teammates since his arrival.

“I’ve always been telling my team what I wanted to say like, ‘Do what you’re supposed to do,’ and ‘Play for the team’ in severe tones,” said Kinoshita, who averaged 6.9 points and 2.6 assists in the regular season. “Because I don’t want to lose. So I raise my voice when I have to.”

Kinoshita added that each Hitachi player understands his role, pays respect to each other, and that’s one of the reasons why the team has put everything together so quickly.

Olson admitted that Kinoshita’s presence has enabled the club to be where it is so far. Back in January, the Sunrockers seized the Emperor’s Cup in the annual All-Japan Championship.

“I think Kinoshita is a big part of it, because he doesn’t score 20 points, have 10 assists, and still is a leader,” Olson said. “So we have great leadership with guys that just don’t have great stats. Since Day One, Kinoshita’s been a good leader, I think that’s why every team he’s been at has been successful — Panasonic, Wakayama, all successful.”

Kinoshita, a former Japan national team player who led the JBL in assists in the 2009-10 season when he was with the Panasonic Trians, noted that his only concern for the team is that it sometimes plays lightly, underestimating its opponents.

But that means that if the Sunrockers won’t do it, they will be as good as advertised and have a better chance to win it all in the end.

“If we play with a sense of urgency from the very beginning, I have confidence that we’re not going to lose,” Kinoshita said. “When we can play like that, we are tough to beat.”

Meanwhile, Olson, 35 like Kinoshita, is also having a banner year. The Portland, Oregon, native established himself, having coached in the NBDL, the second tier of the NBL, in the last two seasons.

Olson was the head coach for the Renova Kagoshima in the 2012-13 season and for Tokyo Excellence in the 2013-14 campaign.

He said that he didn’t necessarily have to make adjustments since coming to the top division after he was promoted from the lower division this year, because it’s still the game in the same country.

“I think of course I had to adjust to the level of the players, of the referees, so many games, 54 games in this season,” said Olson, who guided the Excellence to the NBDL championship and was selected the league’s Coach of the Year last season. “But I don’t know, it’s difficult to describe, because even though it’s the division two, it’s still Japan. First division, Japan. So Japanese basketball is kind of the same to me no matter what level that is.”

Yet the spotlight’s brighter in the first division, which now Olson gets.

Does he feel that his long wait was over as he landed Hitachi?

Not really, he insisted, because it’s not the first time for him to taste top-division basketball.

“Remember I was first at the Link Tochigi Brex as an assistant coach?” said Olson, who worked under Thomas Wisman for the Brex four seasons ago, when they claimed the JBL title.

“So as an assistant, it was a great experience. I got to coach and learn from a great coach, Tom Wisman. Then that led me to coaching in the second division, so that experience definitely helped me out. I tried to do my best at every team I went.”

The Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture-based Sunrockers, who finished runner-up in the 2008-09 season, seek to capture their first-ever league title in the upcoming playoffs.