Basketball / BJ-League

Oketani leaves Iwate Big Bulls after three seasons at the helm

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

After three successful seasons in charge, Iwate Big Bulls coach Dai Oketani’s tenure has ended, the Eastern Conference club announced on Friday evening.

Oketani guided Iwate to three straight winning seasons and took the Tohoku franchise to its first-ever Final Four last week.

Oketani was unavailable for comment at press time.

Iwate center Abdullahi Kuso said he was “very surprised” by the news.

“Coach Dai did a great job this year,” Kuso told The Japan Times. “I guess the team just wanted to go a different direction. He’s a very good coach and I wish him well. I’m sure he’s gonna do a great job wherever he ends up.”

The Akita Northern Happinets and Shiga Lakestars defeated the Big Bulls in the Eastern Conference final and third-place game, respectively, at Ariake Colosseum. And so, Iwate placed fourth overall in the 22-team circuit.

The 37-year-old Oketani became the first bench boss with 300 regular-season bj-league wins when Iwate topped the Niigata Albirex BB on Feb. 15.

Oketani has coached in the bj-league since its inception in 2005. He was promoted from Oita HeatDevils assistant to head coach after the team started out 4-12 under ex-NBA big man Jawann Oldham.

He led the HeatDevils until the end of the 2007-08 season, then spent four seasons with the Ryukyu Golden Kings, steering them to a pair of titles (2008-09 and 2011-12).

A Kyoto native, Oketani brought instant credibility to Iwate when he took over for the 2012-13 campaign, when the franchise was beginning its second season.

The Big Bulls, coming off a 19-33 season, improved to 34-18 with Oketani at the helm.

In 2013-14, Iwate finished 40-12 and completed a 41-11 season in April, tying the Happinets for the East’s best record.

The Big Bulls went a combined 115-41 in the regular season under Oketani.

And now the team faces potential huge question marks about its status as an elite team and if it can remain one under a new coach.

Or as one team observer pointed out in an email to The Japan Times on Friday: “It’s hard to imagine the team without Oketani, before he came the team was rudderless, lacking identity. It was said of (legendary college football coach) Bear Bryant he can take his team and beat yours, then he can take your team and beat his. That’s the type of coach he was. How do you replace that?

“He is also a lot like (New England Patriots coach) Bill Belichick in his ability to motivate and make adjustments, skilled in finding what an opponent’s weakness is and exploiting it. There are only a handful of coaches in Japan at that level, I would think. I hope the Big Bulls management knows where to find another, and didn’t just get lucky in hiring Oketani.”

But since the end of the regular season, more than one-third of the league’s active teams — two more expansion clubs, Kanazawa Samuraiz and Hiroshima Lightning, are joining the fold for the upcoming season — have announced they are not renewing their coach’s contract. Iwate joins the Tokyo Cinq Reves, Saitama Broncos, Osaka Evessa, Bambitious Nara, Niigata Albirex BB, Takamatsu Five Arrows, Shimane Susanoo Magic and Oita HeatDevils as teams that have officially parted ways with their 2014-15 sideline supervisor. Several more coaching departures are expected.

All of the above coaching exits have previously been reported by The Japan Times except for Shimane’s.

The Susanoo Magic recently announced that Tomohiro Moriyama would not be retained as head coach.

Moriyama, who began the season as an assistant, took over as head coach after the team’s 1-11 start under Reggie Hanson, who was fired in November. He led the team’s dramatic turnaround, posting a 21-19 record as bench boss and steering the Magic to a sixth-place finish in the West and a playoff berth.

Cartwright’s return: Former Chicago Bulls and Osaka Evessa head coach Bill Cartwright is returning to the Evessa as an advisory coach for the upcoming season, the bj-league club announced on its website Friday evening.

Shunsuke Todo is out as head coach after a 24-28 season in 2013-14 and 28-24 this campaign.

Meanwhile, Cartwright also became the Mexican national team head coach in September 2014.

It’s unclear at press time how much day-to-day involvement the 216-cm mentor will have with the Evessa in Japan. But he said he embraces the challenge.

“I am once again very excited to be working for the Osaka Evessa,” Cartwright said in a team-issued statement. “I had a great experience coaching the team (and) management was great to work with.”

He described the organization as having “a great passion for basketball and winning, as do I.”

“I believe that a basketball team should reflect the city that it represents; passionate, hard working, committed to winning, smart,” he commented.

“Our goals are simple — we want to be a team that the people of Osaka are proud of, we want to play an up-tempo, fun style of game.

“Our final goal is to build a championship team; not only for one season but for many seasons to come.”

Cartwright took over an Osaka squad with a 5-19 record in January 2013 and guided the team to 17 victories in 28 games to close out the season.

He was the No. 3 overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks and played for the club until 1988, when he was traded to the Chicago Bulls.

Cartwright won three NBA titles as the Bulls’ starting center before closing out his career in 1995 with the Seattle SuperSonics.

He also served as an assistant coach on the Bulls’ fifth and sixth titles of the Phil Jackson/Michael Jordan-led dynasty of the 1990s.

Cartwright was the Bulls head coach from 2001-03, then served as a New Jersey Nets (2004-08) and Phoenix Suns (2008-12) assistant.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5