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‘Coach Crusher’ likes Hamamatsu’s chances going into Final Four

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Japan Times features periodic interviews with personalities in the bj- league. Coach Tomoya Higashino of the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix is the subject of this week’s profile.

Age: 44
Hometown: Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture
Coaching background: Higashino completed his second full season on the Hamamatsu bench in April. He took over for Ryuji Kawai in March 2013. The Phoenix were 23-15 at the time of the coaching move, and went 5-9 to close out the regular season. … Higashino has previously been a head coach in the JBL2 (Tokorozawa Broncos, 1999-2001) and JBL (Rera Kamuy Hokkaido, 2007-10). He served as a Japan national team assistant coach under Zeljko Pavlicevic (2004-06) and Tom Wisman (2010-12), and also worked as an assistant at NCAA Division III Lewis & Clark College (1996-98). Noteworthy: Higashino, known in Japan basketball circles as “Coach Crusher,” is the third bench boss to guide the Phoenix to a bj-league Final Four appearance, following in the footsteps of Kazuo Nakamura (2009, 2010, 2011) and Kawai (2012). … The Phoenix went 41-11 and finished third in the Western Conference this season. They made a 14-win improvement from last season’s squad. … Higashino participated as an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2012 NBA Summer League team. … His Crusher Basketball Camp, held annually in the summer, was established in 1996. … For a master’s degree assignment at Waseda University, he wrote his thesis on Argentine basketball.

Ringing endorsement: “Crusher is great for Japan basketball,” Bruce O’Neil, president of the United States Basketball Academy, said in a 2012 interview with The Japan Times. “(He’s) very outgoing and does a very good job of analyzing the game. He is going at it the right way in trying to continue to build his connections at the highest levels of basketball in the USA.”

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What do you think have been keys to the team’s success this season?

We (use) 11 players … and I believe everyone is at a pretty good level. We don’t rely on one or two players, or just an ace like (forwards) Mo Charlo or Olu Ashaolu.

We play team basketball. We play team offense and team defense like the San Antonio Spurs.

How much fun, if you would use that description, has this team been to coach compared to your previous teams?

The players I currently have are all players I have chosen, so I can give them (instruction) and I have the feel for this team.

By the end of the year, for me trust becomes the first (thing). I’ve enjoyed it very much.

How important has center Atsuya Ota’s role been for the team?

Ota is very important to me. Along with the Takeuchi twins (Kosuke and Joji, NBL players), Oita plans to play for the national team at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and so I intend to use Ota as much as possible for us.

In past seasons under Nakamura, Ota (struggled). But this time, he’s a main guy. That’s good for us. He’s very active defensively. He doesn’t score a lot of points (3.9 per game), but sets screens, just plays physical basketball.

Who are some coaching mentors who have shaped your coaching philosophy over the years?

Former University of San Francisco coach Bob Gaillard, who was (The Associated Press) Coach of the Year in 1977 and Bill Cartwright’s coach, he was influential for me.

Also, Howie Landa, former UNLV coach, who coached lots of kids’ programs. It’s fun, enjoyment. And that’s why I started my camp. The Crusher Camp in Japan for 19 years has had 30,000 kids so far. I’m still continuing my camp. The camp’s slogan is “play fun, play hard.”

Landa came over to Japan and coached five or six times.

(Reporter’s note: Higashino worked under sideline supervisor Gaillard at Lewis & Clark, in Portland, Oregon, joining a coaching staff that also included Bob Pierce, who later coach the JBL’s Hitachi squad and Shiga, Akita and Sendai in the bj-league.
Higashino and Pierce, who is now director of instruction for Five-Star Sports China, have been good friends for about 20 years
.)

Similarly, what about some of the NBA coaches over the past 10 years?

Jim Boylan and Scott Skiles, he’s my guy, too.

As for the 2012 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, including practices and five games in 10 days, Higashino said, “It was a great experience. I learned a lot there. Coach Boylan and Coach Skiles, they treated me very well. I’m still in touch with them.”

Former Iwate guard Tasuku Namizato, whose younger brother has played for Ryukyu since 2011, has matured and developed his game this season. He scored a season-high 15 points in Hamamastu’s conference semifinals-clinching victory over the Golden Kings on May 10. In your opinion, how has he played of late?

I reminded him he has the ability. At the beginning of the season, he showed some good stuff. In the middle of the season, he struggled and lost confidence.

But the keys were trying hard in practice, and after practice as much as he can. That brought him to be better and better. I pushed him a lot, actually; like (Los Angeles Clippers guard) Chris Paul’s use of pick-and-roll plays.

And with fellow guard Shinnosuke Oishi slowed down by an injury — he played four minutes on May 10 and Namizato saw 24 minutes of action — “this was now his chance,” Higashino said of Namizato. “He shot lots of 3s, made assists and controlled the team. He played big.”

How would you evaluate University of Nevada alum Charlo and Ashaolu, a University of Oregon product, among the league’s top overall players?

They are two very high-level players.

I saw Ashaolu on the Milwaukee Bucks’ Summer League team. He’s strong, he handles the ball. He finishes inside, dunks. He’s quick, but not a good shooter. But his impact is amazing. … He changes the game.

Mo Charlo, he’s like a playmaker for us, really high basketball IQ. … He brings excellent effort at both ends of the floor

The two are my weapons — good defensive players.

Looking at the experience of Ota and guards Masahiro Oguchi and Shingo Okada, who helped Hamamatsu win back-to-back titles in 2010-11, how have they been valuable leaders for this revamped squad?

They give us confidence. They are just stable. Oguchi and Okada are always talking to their teammates.