Second in a three-part series
For the team’s inaugural 2005-06 season in the bj-league, the Tokyo Apache hired a head coach with a catchy nickname and a globally renowned son named after a Japanese delicacy.
Yes, Kobe’s father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant.
The elder Bryant, who starred at La Salle University in Philadelphia, rose to prominence as a star player in Italy after nearly a decade in the NBA. While leading the Apache, Bryant preached teamwork, and instead of harping on a player’s shortcomings, he pushed each player to shine as an individual, using his own unique skill set.
In their third and fourth seasons, the Bryant-led Apache earned a pair of championship runner-up finishes, against the Osaka Evessa and Ryukyu Golden Kings. Then, after four seasons with Bryant at the helm, the franchise, under new management, went in another direction and brought in Motofumi Aoki, the original Takamatsu Five Arrows bench boss, as coach for the 2009-10 season. The new-look Apache went 22-30 that season and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Coach Aoki wasn’t retained for the 2010-11 season, and under new American ownership (Michael Lerch’s Evolution Capital Management) the Apache made a big splash by hiring Bob Hill for the 2010-11 season. Hill became the first former NBA head coach to be hired in that capacity by a bj-league team.
With Hill in charge, there were big expectations. Indeed, he and management had lofty ambitions for the team. And the now-defunct franchise, which played its final game on March 10, 2011, at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2, took a big step forward by handing the reins to Hill.
Darin Maki, a Japanese-American guard who played college ball at Cal State-Dominguez Hills, and backcourt mainstay Cohey Aoki were among the team’s players who had grown into well-known figures during Bryant’s time in charge.
Maki explained how both coaches with NBA ties had different ways of running the team.
“Joe was always jolly and joking,” Maki told Hoop Scoop. “Bob was very laid back as well, but when he was coaching he was very serious and of course the biggest difference was Joe would practice with us every day.
“Similarly, they were both competitive and psychologists, they knew how to manage personalities and always seemed confident that they knew they could out coach their opponent.
“One thing I will always appreciate is that they both always had our backs as players.”
Looking back on the build-up to that season, Maki remembered that he was “excited” about the news that Evolution Capital Management had purchased the team and given Hill, former head coach of the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics, a chance to call the shots.
Maki spent the 2009-10 season with the Oita HeatDevils, then returned to Tokyo to suit up for Hill’s squad.
“I was eager to return and finish where I started by Japan career,” Maki said. “I turned down a good offer to join a very good Osaka team at the time to join the new-look Tokyo Apache.
“I knew I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to play for an NBA coach and an owner like Michael Lerch, two very hungry-to-win competitors.”
Meanwhile, entering his prime as a player in the league’s sixth season, Aoki, already a four-time All-Star, had earned Hill’s respect.
“Cohey is a very professional player and probably has been our most consistent performer,” Hill said before the 2010-11 regular season tipped off. “I have a lot of respect for him as a person and player.”
Maki, who wrapped up his bj-league career in 2012 with the Saitama Broncos, was impressed with how Hill, who’s now an assistant coach for the Phoenix Suns, and his son, Casey, the current bench boss of the NBA Development League’s Santa Cruz Warriors, molded the Apache into a quality team.
“We had a very talented team and a mixture of eccentric personalities and Bob and his son Casey brought it all together,” Maki recalled.
“Practices were very precise and everything we did had a purpose, there was never any wasted time or energy.
“I learned from watching Bob how to work efficiently, handle different people, and to be prepared for everything and I take that with me to this day.”
During preseason training camp in suburban Dallas, Hill’s professionalism set the tone for the team’s season.
“Everything was done professionally, which really made me impressed,” Aoki told Hoop Scoop. “As the head coach kept telling us from the very beginning, team chemistry is the most important thing. . . . We had quite a few team meetings with the coach in that particular season. That season had me change not only my outlook on life, but also my way of thinking for basketball.”
Bob and Casey Hill’s strong bond carried over into how they ran the team, according to Aoki, who called their cooperation “fantastic.”
Reflecting on that Apache season cut short after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Aoki admitted that “I felt really lucky to be able to play under a coach who has (led teams) in the NBA.”
That season, the Apache frontcourt featured former NBA big man Robert Swift and future NBA second-round draft pick Jeremy Tyler, who was only 19 when the bj-league campaign got underway. Hill’s master plan involved getting both frontcourt players to maximize their minutes and improve their mental and physical focus on the court.
Tyler commented on Hill’s impact on his life in a phone interview in the spring of 2012, when he’d wrapped up his first NBA season as a member of the Golden State Warriors.
“I just think that Bob Hill definitely taught me the essence of life is teamwork,” Tyler told The Japan Times, “and with teamwork you can climb the mountains in whatever you do in life and have a positive surrounding for you as a backbone.”
Five years later, that remarkable, one-for-the-ages fourth-quarter comeback victory on Feb. 22 — when the Apache rallied from 19 down with about five minute left and won it 85-84 on Byron Eaton’s buzzer-beater from near halfcourt — over Osaka proved to be unforgettable for Maki, Aoki and their Apache teammates.
There’s a backstory to the incredible rally, too. Earlier that day,
Hill got “furious with a ferocious look,” Aoki, who now plays for his hometown Rizing Fukuoka, recounted.
“Our coach would get angry at times and whenever he got angry we all knew why he was angry. But that time we were all confused and wondered what got him so mad (because) we hadn’t even started our game yet.”
Earlier that day, according to Aoki, after Tokyo’s morning shooting drills the Osaka Evessa took to the court and then-Evessa head coach Ryan Blackwell, then 34 and in his first season at the helm, was seen toying with his cellphone near the middle of the court during Osaka’s own shooting drills.
An eyewitness reported this to the Apache front office.
“(Hill) was completely humiliated by Ryan’s attitude, saying that the in the two games they were about to play we could not be defeated,” Aoki recalled.
Hill was right. Tokyo also won the rematch a day later, 84-77.
“I will never forget the coach’s face looking so content after the games,” Aoki said.
“This episode represents coach’s love of basketball,” he said, adding, “…The coach was tough and strict, but in a loving way.”
In the aforementioned thriller, beating the three-time champion Evessa in such dramatic fashion, proved that Hill knew how to motivate his players, including Eaton, who scored 19 fourth-quarter points to ignite the comeback. He instilled great trust in his players, and that attitude paid big dividends.
Exhibit A: The wild comeback against the Evessa.
Said Maki: “We were down 19 with a little over 4 minutes to play and everyone thought it was over. We kept fighting and fighting to get the deficit to 10 with a minute and change to play.”
With 2.3 seconds remaining, Maki recalled, “(Osaka’s) Lynn Washington missed a free throw, which went to Swift, Swift kicked it out to Byron and he let it fly. The whole arena went nuts and the crazy thing about it was, we just knew we were going to win that game.
“We were hitting out stride as a team and I really think we could have won that whole thing that year.”
In a nutshell, “that season was very glamorous,” Maki said. “We had the imported (American) dancers and all the rah-rah, basically the Lakers of Japan and carried ourselves like it. So many players from other teams were always saying, ‘Damn, I wish I was playing for you guys.’ ”
He added: “We definitely operated in stark contrast to all the other teams and I enjoyed it. Maybe if we did things differently we could have continued playing after the earthquake and lasted more seasons as an organization. All in all, I gained so much from that short season, made great memories and great friends, and I would do it all over again.”
Lerch’s company suspended operations in the aftermath of the March 11 disasters, and the team closed shop for good that summer for financial reasons (primarily a lack of sponsors).
“The team had to end in the middle of the season due to the earthquake, and I really wanted to play until the last moment,” Aoki says now.
Aoki cherished his time playing for Hill and the relationships that were formed and strengthened that season.
“It was a great experience for me, and being a member of the team gave me a sense of pride and fulfillment,” nine-time All-Star Aoki concluded. “Although the Tokyo Apache no longer exist, (the team) continues to live in me.”