Winning a title to close out the Ryukyu Golden Kings’ remarkable stretch of sustained excellence in the bj-league put a huge smile on Golden Kings legend Anthony McHenry’s face.
Like the rest of his teammates, McHenry’s post-game mood was euphoric on Sunday, when the Golden Kings defeated the Toyama Grouses 86-74 at Ariake Colosseum to claim the fourth championship of their nine-year history.
What else did you expect title No. 4, which made Ryukyu the winningest franchise — surpassing a pair of three-time winners, Osaka Evessa and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix — in league history, would do?
Fittingly, McHenry had the first triple-double in the league’s 11 title games on Sunday, producing a 10-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist performance that sparked, inspired, guided and elevated the Golden Kings to another championship.
It wasn’t easy.
Reflecting on Ryukyu’s four championship seasons (the team also won titles in 2008-09, 2011-12, 2013-14), McHenry, a Georgia Tech alum, said he considered this one “definitely the most difficult.”
He also called it “the most special” in an interview with The Japan Times late Sunday night.
The three previous championship teams featured retired legend Jeff Newton, the only six-time title winner in league history, whose move to Ryukyu from the Osaka Evessa in 2008, after the latter had rolled to three straight titles since the league’s inception, shifted the balance of power in the league.
“Many factors played a part, not having Jeff, a new system on offense, overall better competition and the pressure of trying to make history,” said McHenry, who joined the Golden Kings in 2008.
“With that said, I am truly proud of my guys. And though this victory is the sweetest of them all, I can’t help but miss my friend and bj-league mentor Jeff Newton.”
Asked to offer some keys to success for the team’s offensive overhaul this season, McHenry responded by saying, “Just learning. All of us had to make sacrifices to our individual games in order for it to work.”
Credit Ryukyu coach Tsutomu Isa for pushing his players and molding the team into a new-look unit this season that regained its championship swagger after the now-retired Newton left the team as a champion in 2014.
Kawachi’s thoughts: Commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi spoke after Sunday’s festivities before a gathering of several dozen reporters. He also addressed the fans in his comments on the final day of the league’s existence.
“On Nov. 5, 2005, we opened this first professional basketball league in Japan here at Ariake Colosseum,” said Kawachi, the only commissioner in bj-league history. “And this was the final game. I would like to express my deepest appreciation for the last 11 years. This is a league that started with six teams, but grew with more teams year in and year out, and we’ve ended up having 24 teams, which is more than half of the country’s prefectures. We’ve made it happen because of our boosters and sponsors.
“During the 11 years, we had the Great East Japan Earthquake and some teams had to fold and we’ve had various difficulties. But at times our boosters told us, ‘Thanks for founding a team in our community’ with big smiles. And that always gave us energy to move forward.
“As the bj-league closes today, Japan’s basketball will enter a new chapter. I want to make sports entertaining and I want to see Japanese players perform well on the international stage — those hopes will be relayed to the (new) B. League.
“The bj-league ends today, but with the power of the boosters, I’m certain that the future of Japan’s basketball is bright.”
Looking back on the league’s 11 seasons, Kawachi also reflected on his own career as a player, coach, team executive and league commissioner.
And what struggles did he and the bj-league endure over the past 11 years?
“We’ve had a lot of tough times,” he said. “I was a player and head coach for a corporate team and our club was forced to disband because of the measures of the company, regardless how we were doing. So I wanted to start up a professional league, in which you get paid back when you make an effort — no matter how tough it is, you get paid back when you work hard and you can overcome it — I believed in it.
He added: “When I was the president of Niigata (a JBL team at the time), I talked to the JBA (Japan Basketball Association), asking to start a professional league. Nevertheless, they turned it down saying, ‘It’d be difficult to have a pro league in Japan,’ which was actually something I had been told 10, 20 years before. But we had the world championship in 2006. There was no case that a host nation for the world championship did not have a professional league.
“So we had no choice but to start up one on our own, because otherwise we would not be recognized internationally. We tried to convey our sincere messages to the people at the JBA, but we had a tough time.”
Nash’s future: Grouses bench boss Bob Nash, the bj-league’s 2015-16 Coach of the Year, said his future with the team is up in air.
After the championship game, Nash told reporters it’s too early to make a decision.
“I’ve been retiring for the last four years, so we’ll see what happens,” Nash said.
Nash, who turns 66 in August, said he’ll return to his home in Hawaii and in the weeks to come plans to talk with the team president and general manager before making a decision.
Nash has led Toyama to four straight playoff appearances, including trips to the Final Four in 2014 and this season. His overall regular-season coaching record is 151-57.
Before he was hired, the Grouses had never had a winning season since their inception in 2006.
“We wanted to change the culture of basketball on the team,” Nash said, looking back at the team’s goals.
He credited the team’s front-office management, including top executives, for the Grouses’ transformation.
Increased fan support followed, he said, adding that has contributed greatly to the team’s success.
This season’s success, he added, didn’t happen overnight.
“Players bought into the system,” Nash said, “and once we developed chemistry, it was a big step for us.”
Indeed. The Grouses recorded 14 consecutive victories before the title game. They won 21 of their final 23 games.
Historical footnote: Toyama forward Samuel Sawaji Jr. made the final basket in bj-league history, a 3-pointer that beat the final buzzer on Sunday.
Coaching opportunity: The North Dakota State men’s basketball team announced the hiring of Will Veasley, a former Niigata standout, as an assistant coach on Monday.
During Veasley’s college career, his Butler University team was the 2010 NCAA Tournament championship runner-up his senior season, and made the NCAA tourney in all four of his seasons with the Bulldogs.
Bison head coach David Richman’s club went 20-13 during the 2015-16 season. And for Richman and his program, Veasley brings a winning background — he is the winningest player in Butler history (118 victories in his 134 college games) — to NDSU.
“We are fired up with the addition of Will to our Bison Family,” Richman said in a statement. “Will is a great fit in terms of his background — coming from programs that, like us, believe that culture, character and integrity are more important than anything. His humble demeanor and workmanlike attitude will help grow our program and allow our student-athletes to maximize their potential in all facets of life.”
After playing for the Albirex in the 2010-11 season (11.9 points per game), Veasley played for the NBA Development League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers for one season, then worked as video coordinator for the IUPUI men’s team.
Before joining the North Dakota State coaching staff, Veasley served as Illinois State’s director of basketball operations (2015-16) and video coordinator (2013-15).
“I am very thankful for the opportunity to be joining Coach Richman’s staff here at North Dakota State University,” Veasley said in a statement. “Coach Richman prides himself on the culture and family environment they’ve built at NDSU, and that is what makes this a special program. The success NDSU has had is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the entire athletic department. I am extremely excited to be a part of the family and ready to help the program continue in its successful ways.”
Lakestars update: The Shiga Lakestars have renewed coach Koto Toyama’s contract for the 2016-17 B. League campaign, the team announced on Tuesday.
Toyama guided Shiga to a 35-17 record this season, his second at the helm.
Class act: Nash, as he has done many times during his time at Toyama, offered words of appreciation for the media to conclude his final news conference in the bj-league.
“Thank every one of you for what you do, for making us, the bj-league and Toyama Grouses, relevant,” Nash told reporters.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.