First in a three-part series.

The 2010-11 Tokyo Apache team delivered a memorable, unique product that will remain a part of Japan basketball lore for decades to come.

To this observer, many memories of that team’s final bj-league season are as fresh and vivid as they were five springs ago: the personalities, the team’s zany schedule and a growth curve that demanded attention.

The final Apache game took place the day before the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that devastated Tohoku. The Apache defeated the Akita Northern Happinets, a first-year franchise, 94-80 in the series finale at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2. It was the team’s fourth game in six days. A day earlier, on a Wednesday, Akita had outlasted Tokyo 100-98 in a wild double-overtime contest, getting 42 points from Sek Henry, including 19 in the two OTs.

Tokyo suspended operations after 3/11. American players and staff left Japan. The team folded that summer, with ownership citing a lack of sponsors as a primary factor. Therefore, many questions will never be answered about that team’s potential.

The Apache, one of the original six franchises when the bj-league began in 2005, had gone through several ownership changes by the time American Michael Lerch, founder of Evolution Capital Management and a former college football wide receiver at Princeton University, purchased the team a few months before the 2010-11 campaign.

Ex-NFL fullback Chris Hetherington, another former Ivy League gridiron player (Yale quarterback) who worked as a financial trader for Evolution Capital, was hired as Apache president.

But it started with great promise. Longtime NBA bench boss Bob Hill and his son, Casey, then a young assistant, worked in the roles of new Apache mentor and coaching pupil. Their roster included American reclamation project Robert Swift, a 216-cm big man who had skipped college and previously played for Hill on the Seattle SuperSonics, and talented teenage post player Jeremy Tyler, a physically gifted athlete who bypassed his senior year at San Diego High School to play pro ball in Israel the year before.

In June 2011, Tyler was a second-round draft pick by the Charlotte Bobcats and immediately traded to the Golden State Warriors. He bounced around the NBA Development League and the NBA over the next few years before heading to China in each of the past two seasons.

The new-look team inherited several returning Japanese players, including dependable guards Cohey Aoki and Jumpei Nakama, who had been with the team since its inception in 2005, youngsters Minoru Kimura and Kensuke Tanaka, plus former No. 1 overall bj-league draft pick Takanori Goya. Japanese-American guard Darin Maki, another original Apache player who was beginning his second stint with the club, helped bridge the gap between the two cultures. (Aoki was already well on his way to cementing his claim as the most popular player in league history at that point.)

In an interview with the New Haven (Connecticut) Register in April 2011, Hetherington described the process of cobbling together the team this way: “We built an NBA-style franchise from scratch.”

The Apache held their eight-day preseason training camp in Carrollton (suburban Dallas), Texas, an unheard of expense in the cost-conscious bj-league. (The team also hired more than a dozen American cheerleaders to reside and work in Japan. Another expense the rest of the league’s teams didn’t pay for.)

“Coming to Japan was not my first overseas experience, which certainly helped the process,” Bob Hill said earlier this week. “The fact that we had American owners was a real positive and I really liked them, which was even a bigger positive. Having Casey with me the entire way was so much fun for me.”

He said that training camp in Texas “gave our players and traveling party a chance to get to know each other and build relationships and trust prior to traveling to Tokyo. That was a real advantage for all of us.

“So we had a lot of advantages prior to landing in Tokyo.”

And unlike most bj-league teams that used five or more venues for their home games, the Apache were committed to having a single home gym, but securing it for the entire season proved problematic. The Apache didn’t have their first home game at Yoyogi until Jan. 6, 2011; the season started in mid-October.

“The schedule we inherited was obviously a huge challenge and one that I had never seen before,” Bob Hill recalled this week.

“. . .Having said that, it did not make getting started in the bj-league easy by no means. We soldiered through and made the most of the situation and learned the entire way. Learned about the talent level of the league, the philosophy of the coaches, the officiating, the various venues and the fans.”

The biggest challenge?

“To get our roster in championship condition,” Bob Hill declared, estimating that Swift and guard Byron Eaton were probably around 31.7 kg and 13.6 kg (70 and 30 pounds) overweight, respectively, when they joined the team.

“Jeremy Tyler needed to grow up and become more professional,” he commented. “(Former Duke and Michigan State guard/forward) Mike Chappell was an enormous help with the entire process. He was already a championship player from top to bottom. (Forward) Kendall Dartez needed to commit to our team totally. So the challenges we had with our American roster were probably more difficult than any other.”

On the other hand, Hill said, “Our Japanese roster was in many ways perfect with regards to their attitude and willingness to commit to our team. They were great and just got better every day. A joy to coach.”

All in all, the Apache were a unique team. The assembled talent and fresh new start under Lerch, Hetherington, Hill and general manager Conor Neu, stepson of former NBA head coach George Irvine, produced a different vibe than other franchises in the league.

Five years later, the elder Hill, now 67, returned to the NBA in February as an assistant with the struggling Phoenix Suns, and Casey is an up-and-coming head coach for the NBA Development League’s Santa Cruz Warriors. He guided the club to the D-League title last season.

Meanwhile, Hill’s translator, team manager Geoffrey Katsuhisa, is now a first-year head coach with the Iwate Big Bulls after serving as an assistant for the Chiba Jets.

Volunteer assistant Natalie Nakase, a former UCLA point guard who has aspirations to coach in the NBA in the future, is in her third season as assistant video coordinator (along with added player development coach duties this season) for the Los Angeles Clippers. She previously coached the Saitama Broncos for most of the 2011-12 campaign.

In a series of recent interviews, former Apache players and staff members reflected on that season, sharing their favorite memories and general thoughts on the team’s transformation.

“Being a part of the Tokyo Apache organization was an incredible experience,” Katsuhisa told Hoop Scoop. “The best part about our time together was the relationships that were made. While our respective careers have taken us to different parts of the world, I feel incredibly fortunate that we still stay in contact.

“Personally, it was my first experience working in professional basketball and I was given the opportunity to learn from so many people in the organization. The Tokyo Apache gave me an opportunity to do what I love for a living and work together with those who shared that love. I remain grateful for the experience, and know that that season together will always be a bond that keeps us close.”

Chappell, now a commercial real estate appraiser in Santa Monica, California, echoed Katsuhisa’s sentiments that a strong bond was a key characteristic of the team’s identity.

“I remember the last stretch of games before the earthquake against Akita,” Chappell said. “I had the most fun of my professional career during that period. It felt as if the team was beginning to hit our stride. It’s sad that we didn’t get a chance to finish the season.”

He added: “I was fortunate to work with a lot of great people that year, including front office staff, players, and coaches, and still consider them friends. I really enjoyed what turned out to be my final year of professional basketball.

“Playing for Coach Hill, gave me the opportunity to live out a dream of playing for a NBA coach, even if it wasn’t in the NBA. Earning his respect as a player and professional was an honor in and of itself.

“My family and I miss Tokyo. We treasure the time we spent there, and will always have fond memories.”

The Apache finished with a 20-14 record behind the second-place Sendai 89ers (24-12), who also suspended operations for the rest of the season along with the Saitama Broncos after 3/11, and eventual champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (40-6) among the Eastern Conference’s seven teams.

By January, the Apache had really started to show their potential, going 7-3 that month, including a five-game winning streak. In February, they went 6-2 with another five-game surge. That month, they also overcame a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit with about five minutes left to shock the visiting Osaka Evessa 85-84 on Eaton’s buzzer-beater from near the half-court line.

“We had really turned the corner and were playing really good basketball,” Casey Hill said.

Indeed, his father had crafted the team’s master plan and seen it taking shape, like an exquisite piece of pottery, before his eyes on the basketball court, where he had toiled for years, including time as the head man for the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs.

“As we moved forward in the experience, we overcame most of our challenges and the chemistry of our roster just got stronger and stronger,” Bob Hill says now. “At the bitter end, we were, in my opinion, close to becoming a team that was prepared to win the championship.

“We all believed and we were playing each game at a very high level. The earthquake ended all of our dreams.”

He is, however, grateful for the opportunity he had to work with his son and help him gain valuable experience as a pro coach, which put him on the path to working in the NBA D-League since 2011.

“Casey became a coach and we will always speak of the experience with tons of fond memories. The Hills are so appreciative of the entire experience and will always believe we would have been the champions.”

And it all started with commitment and preparation. The Apache players’ impressive work ethic fired up the coaching staff, Casey Hill recalled.

“I will never forget walking into the gym every day and meeting seven Japanese basketball players eager to maximize the potential of the three-hour time slot we had in the gym for that day,” he said. “They worked hard, they respected my father and I, they listened and they tried to improve every day.

“It taught me so much about consistency and diving head first into whatever you are tasked with doing whether it’s running portions of practice or doing the laundry for the team. Everything associated with the team is important and should be treated as such.”

Like many others Apache players and staff contacted by Hoop Scoop for this column, Casey Hill drew parallels between the Apache season and an unfinished project and the desire to finish it. He admitted that “such an abrupt ending to such an amazing experience was difficult to swallow for me.”

Asked to elaborate, the younger Hill gave this response: “Saying goodbye to our Japanese players was sad, we had been through such a great experience together and things were cut short. (But) it’s been fun to keep in touch with and follow all of the guys from that group. It was a special group of guys.”

He added: “When the earthquake hit it was devastating to see the impact it had on the entire country. Knowing how many lives were lost and displaced by what had just happened it was difficult to refocus ourselves on basketball. . . . With that said, the timing of the quake was unfortunate for our team.

“We had really turned the corner and were playing really good basketball. Jeremy Tyler had started to play well, Robert Swift was playing at a very high level, Byron Eaton had returned from his (hamstring) injury and was playing well. . . . We were on a roll.”

2010-11 Apache roster: guards Cohey Aoki, Byron Eaton, Takanori Goya, Justin Johnson (a roster addition in 2011), Minoru Kimura, Darin Maki, Jumpei Nakama and Kensuke Tanaka; guard/forward Reina Itakura; forwards Michael Chappell, Kendall Dartez (left the team in February 2011) and Tomoya “Chomo” Nakamura; forward/center Jeremy Tyler; and center Robert Swift.

Who’s still in the bj-league? Goya (Toyama), Tanaka (Toyama), Aoki (Fukuoka) and Kimura (Fukuoka). Elsewhere: Nakamura (NBL’s Tsukura Robots).

Officially retired players: Nakama, Chappell, Eaton, Maki.

Apache athletic trainer Hiroko Saito now works at Sendai University.

Johnson and Dartez spent time in the D-League after leaving the Apache.

Feedback: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp

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