The Toyama Grouses have experienced both ends of the emotional spectrum over the past seven-plus months.
First, there was the euphoric ride of coming one win away from a storybook ending in the spring. Coach Bob Nash led them to a bj-league championship game appearance for the first time in May at Ariake Colosseum, where the Ryukyu Golden Kings closed out the final chapter in league history by capturing their fourth championship, winning 86-74.
Now, in the upstart B. League, a combined circuit featuring teams from the disbanded bj-league, NBL, and NBDL, the Grouses have stumbled to 22 defeats in 25 games. They had the worst record in the 18-team top division entering Christmas weekend.
But Nash, in his fifth season at the helm, refuses to dwell on the negatives. “We set a very high standard for our organization, so the win-loss record is surprising,” Nash told Hoop Scoop. “But like everything in life, if you weren’t born with it, you have to earn it. We are having our struggles but I don’t think it has anything to do with how our management or organization is being run. Our fans have supported us by showing up in good numbers. The only thing we didn’t realize was the importance of a naturalized player and the import on-the-court limitation.
“I just think we got off to a bad start because of injuries early in the season. We played almost a month with only two imports and I think that created a negative mindset. But we are just beginning to recognize our potential. I foresee a marked improvement in our team going into the second half of the season.”
The Grouses played one of their best games of the season last Saturday in a 91-87 road loss to the Chiba Jets, who earned their 12th straight victory in the series opener.
“I love my team and they love each other,” said Nash, whose distinguished association with the University of Hawaii began in 1970 during his collegiate days (he then played as an NBA, ABA and Swedish League forward). After his playing days, he was a longtime assistant for UH before taking over as head coach in 2007, a position he held until 2010.
“We just haven’t reached the point of total trust,” he admitted. “Our practices are very competitive and very business-like. As a coaching staff, we prepare ourselves to prepare the players by watching hours of video of our team and our opponents. There are very talented players, coaches and teams in this league, so every game you need to be at your best and we haven’t been at our best on a consistent basis. But I’m seeing an upswing in our performance.”
He added: “We have a lot of digging to do, but that’s the journey.”
Nash cited Toyama’s back-to-back road losses to the Osaka Evessa on Dec. 5 and 6 (85-79 and 98-93) as examples of the team’s improved play.
Asked if he has received assurances from management that they are patient about building the team for the future and not just this season and scrutinizing the team’s record, Nash, who had a 151-57 regular-season record in the past four campaigns said, “I don’t need assurance or job security from management. They understand the journey, so we are working together to make our organization the best it can become.”
Moving forward, up-and-comer Naoki Uto, who is having a breakthrough season as one of the dynamic, young backcourt talents in the B. League, will need to continue to make major contributions for the Grouses. The 190-cm point guard’s old-school penchant for banking shots off the backboard and his quick spins in the lane to create space between himself and defenders have grabbed this columnist’s attention. Uto has a nice flair for the game, and at 25 can only keep elevating his game with hard work and discipline.
Through Dec. 18, he was averaging 7.7 points and 3.6 assists (No. 7 in the league). And unlike the majority of guards in this rapid-fire 3-point shooting era, Uto rarely takes shots from beyond the arc. (He’s 1-for-9 this season.) Leaving the then-Toyota Alvark franchise after averaging 3.2 ppg last season, the 190-cm Uto has benefited from a change of scenery — and more minutes — with the Grouses.
“We decided to transform him into a big point guard,” Nash explained. “He has a tremendous motor and a passion to compete. We envision him being more of a Jason Kidd-type player. He’s not a great technical shooter, but he plays to his strengths of attacking the rim or posting up smaller defenders. . . . We think the ceiling is very high with potential to blossom into an elite player.”
As an established star who helped turning the Grouses into a perennial playoff team after joining Toyama in 2011, former bj-league MVP Masashi Joho remains a guiding light for the club. Last Saturday, he had a brilliant performance, canning 6 of 10 3s en route to 29 points; then he had a quiet game — eight points on 2-for-11 shooting — in the rematch.
Despite Joho’s high standards and ability, Nash said he hasn’t pressured the veteran shooting guard to do more this season. “We don’t put added responsibility on any of our players,” the coach said, calling, it a “shared responsibility for our team.”
The Grouses’ journey also includes the mid-December addition of big man Dexter Pittman, a second-round pick of the Miami Heat in the 2010 NBA Draft. Pittman made his B. League debut last Saturday, and Nash has plotted the revamped Grouses blueprint to revolve around the former University of Texas center.
“Dexter will become option one for the team as we move forward and we will work our way out from him,” he told Hoop Scoop. “He give us a big post presence and we plan to utilize him. The thing that I like about him in the short time that we have worked together is he has a no-retreat, no-surrender type of attitude. Burn the bridge, we are only moving forward.”
Off the court, Nash is adjusting to life as a widower. His beloved wife, Domelynne, passed away from cancer in July. She was 65.
She was Nash’s life partner. She was his biggest supporter throughout his basketball career after they met at the University of Hawaii. They raised a family together: daughter Dr. Erika Nash Cameron, a former college volleyball player at Bradley University who has a Ph.D. in counselor education from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and son Bobby, who played pro basketball and followed in his father’s coaching footsteps.
Over the past several years, Domelynne made an impact in the community as the Nash family established roots in Toyama Prefecture. Coach Nash greatly admired the way his wife developed strong bonds with local residents.
“My wife loved the Toyama Grouses family and the culture of Japan,” Nash said. “She was an involved citizen of the Toyama community. She helped both financially and personally with several charitable organizations in Toyama. Her motto is, ‘care for others, share with others and love those who cross your path.’ “
This kind-hearted spirit shines through in the lives of their children, according to Nash.
Nash described Domelynne as an “amazing woman that lives through everything Erika, Bobby and I do to help make a difference in the world. We dedicate every day to Mom by living to the highest standards in all phases of our lives. Mom believes the adage you stand for something or you fall for everything.”
Bobby Nash, now in his second season as an Grouses assistant, is learning more about the coaching game from his father, who also mentored him at Hawaii and with the Saitama Broncos (2010-11 season).
“I loved my son and daughter and we comfort each other,” Nash said. “My wife has so many sisterships that she has built around the world that we get checked on and reminded how strong Mom wants us to be during the difficult times.
“We have always been a close-knit family so Bobby calls Erika to report on me, I call Bobby to report on Erika and Erika call me to report on Bobby. We check and balance each other daily.”
That type of unity, the kind of chemistry that grows from strong personal relationships can also be a positive force for a pro basketball team vying to make a dramatic turnaround.
“Over the past four season we had successful records,” Nash commented. “But that isn’t the level of success we are working towards. Our single goal at the beginning of each season is to be champions at the end of the season. Until we reach that level of success, we will never be satisfied with a winning record.
“A championship is a journey and it is hard to reach, but that’s what we are working towards. We represent all of Toyama Prefecture, so we have a tremendous responsibility. Our fans and supporters are the best in the league.”
Nash calls himself a “proud and blessed Catholic,” and he draws strength from his beliefs to help him endure life’s biggest difficulties.
“In times of despair, faith can be shaken but when we put our life in the comforting hands of our maker we are reassured that everything is going to be OK,” he said.
“Finally, I would like to wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday season,” Nash concluded. “Please remember to care, share and love with those in need.”
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