A few days before the Rio Olympics kicked off, Mototaka Kohama, the godfather of Japanese basketball, reunited with one of his closest friends.
Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey made a long-awaited visit to Japan to see Kohama.
The two men hadn’t seen each other in nine years, though Casey frequently asks about Kohama via email and telephone conversations with his vast network of Japan basketball colleagues.
It was a special reunion.
In early August, Hoop Scoop was invited to attend a small dinner party where Kohama and Casey sat on opposite sides of a table in a private room in a traditional Japanese restaurant in the basement of a swanky Tokyo hotel.
There was genuine joy in the room as Kohama, Casey, longtime Hakuoh University women’s basketball coach Toshinobu Sato and basketball agent Toshinori Koga recalled both funny and intense moments shared with Kohama on and off basketball courts near and far.
Kohama, now 83, spoke about his earliest memories as a basketball player and about meeting Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, one of the players on the U.S. gold medal-winning squad at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, years later.
How did Kohama, who was born in Tokyo, and Casey, who was raised in a small Kentucky town, become lifelong friends?
It started in 1979 at the University of Kentucky, where Casey was a grad assistant. Kohama came to live in Lexington, Kentucky, for a year to observe one of the NCAA’s elite college basketball powerhouse programs. The Wildcats had won the title the previous year.
During their leisurely dinner, decades of hoop history were recounted, with Casey, Kohama and their assembled guests swapping stories and laughter about the old JBL days, exhibition games against U.S. college squads here, hoop camps and more, including Japan’s appearance in the 1998 FIBA World Championship in Greece, where Kohama and his assistant, Casey, led the men’s national team.
“My friendship extends beyond basketball with Kohama-san. He is a dear friend who is like family to me,” said the 59-year-old Casey, who worked in the now-defunct JBL and the college ranks here during the late 1980s and early ’90s, a period in his life that strengthened his ties to Japan’s basketball circles. “We worked together side by side with the Japan national team for many years. He is one of the old pioneers with Japan’s modern-day basketball. … A lot of the modern-day growth and success started with Kohama-san.”
He added: “I will always have an interest in the growth of basketball in Japan at each level. Whatever I can do to help all levels of Japan I am always willing to help.”
Many rich details of the dinner conversation remain off the record, but I can tell you without hesitation that it’s clear as the sky on a bright, sunny day that Kohama, who had remarkable success during his time coaching the now-defunct Isuzu Giga Cats, during their 1980 and ’90s heyday, remains keenly aware of key developments within Japanese basketball at all levels. And he follows the game with never-ending passion.
The elder statesman of Japan hoops sees the big picture, preaching the need for stronger fundamentals and the desire to elevate the coaching profession. Kohama admitted he wants to see the B. League, the new hoop circuit that combined the bj-league, NBL and NBDL under a new three-division umbrella, succeed and grow in popularity and success in the coming years.
After Casey’s short visit to Japan earlier this month, he returned to his home near Seattle for a few days of relaxation before the long journey to Rio de Janeiro, where he watched the closing chapter of the Olympic men’s basketball tournament and the United States’ third straight Summer Games gold-medal triumph under Mike Krzyzewski.
Specifically, he was there to support Toronto stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, key individuals in the team’s rise. (In May, the Raptors fell to the eventual-champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals after a franchise-best 56-win regular season.)
Reflecting on Toronto’s rise and seeing his aforementioned standouts in Rio, Casey, who trails only San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle in tenure with their current NBA teams, had this to say: “We have grown in Toronto with our program. We started six years ago with building our player development program. Then we focused on building our defensive approach. We started out 30th in the NBA. We went to the top 10 in the league in a two-year period. The development of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry has been a huge part of our success. They have been leaders on and off the floor for us. Both are two-time All-Stars and now both are gold-medal players playing for this year’s USA Olympic team.
“Those (guys) playing in this year’s Olympics will be a huge shot in the arm for our program. For the Toronto Raptors to have two Olympic players on the national team was a huge accomplishment for our team.
“I was so proud watching those two represent not only the Toronto Raptors but the USA flag.”
A day after their special dinner in Tokyo, Kohama, Casey, Sato and Koga traveled to Hakuoh University in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture, where Sato’s squad took part in a one-day hoop clinic.
“Not only was it at a chance for women’s college basketball players to hone their skills; it was also an opportunity for Kohama to pass on his wealth of wisdom to coaches assembled from across the nation,” Casey noted, speaking about nearly 100 coaches, representing all levels of the game, who were present.
“(Kohama) was great at the coaches clinic,” Casey went on. “We basically used the girls to demonstrate drills for the coaches from all over the country that were there.
“He spoke to all of the coaches about basketball, the history and the importance of teaching fundamentals and how my relationship started with the country of Japan in men’s and women’s basketball now dating back some 37 years.”
It’s a relationship forged by their common love for the game.
Casey, who was here for the 2006 FIBA World Championship, plans to return to Japan next year. Reason No. 1: He wants to introduce his kids to Kohama.