Basketball

Prolific winner Sako, a JBL legend, joins national team coaching staff

Former Hiroshima Dragonflies bench boss seeks to increase mental toughness of Akatsuki Five

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Japan Basketball Association announced on Friday that former star guard Kenichi Sako has been hired as an assistant coach for the men’s national team.

Sako stepped down from his head coaching position with the Hiroshima Dragonflies of the B. League second division last month after the team’s attempt to get promoted to the first division fell short.

As a player, the 46-year-old was dubbed “Mr. Basketball,” and he had an impressive track record of success in Japan. Sako led the Isuzu Giga Cats and Aisin SeaHorses (predecessor of the SeaHorses Mikawa) to 11 Japan Basketball League championships and was a three-time league MVP (1995, 1996, and 2000).

JBA technical director Tomoya Higashino said that one of the two assistant spots would be filled by a Japanese coach, which was the request of Julio Lamas, the new head coach for the Akatsuki Five.

“To me, there was nobody in mind but him,” said Higashino, who played in the same backcourt with Sako for powerhouse Hokuriku High School of Fukui in the 1980s. “I don’t need to explain about who he is.”

Although Sako failed to take the Dragonflies, who were 46-14 during the regular season, to the B. League top division because the team lost in the promotion/demotion game last month, Hiroshima fans maintained their faith in him. They collected more than 100,000 signatures through a campaign to request that he stays with the club.

Because of it, Sako, who had been at the helm since 2014, said that he hesitated about whether to accept the national team job or not. But after all, he wound up taking it because of his enthusiasm for the Olympics.

“I’ve always had a dream for the Olympics,” Sako said. “I wanted to challenge for it and it supported my decision.”

Sako emphasized that the inauguration of the B. League this past year was a meaningful event, yet unless the national team becomes more competitive, there would not be further development for Japanese hoops.

Sako doesn’t think that Japanese players are necessarily inferior to other nations’ players in terms of their basketball techniques. But he insisted that he’s not happy with their on-court demeanor and what he considers to be inadequate leadership.

“When I watch them play, they play smartly,” he said. “But when they get beaten by the opponents, I’m like, ‘Pay them back.’ “

In other words, he wants to help national team members develop a more fiery, competitive mindset.

Indeed, Sako plans to inspire national team players, but added that they should have increased motivation because the 2020 Olympics will be held in Japan.

The last Olympics that the men’s national competed in was the 1976 Montreal Games. Sako wants to see this drought end.

“Japan has not played in it for 40 years,” Sako said. “And this is a chance for them to make history. I’m going to tell them that.”

Asked if there have been any assistant coaches that he remembers who could be a role model for him, Sako mentioned Dwane Casey, who was an advisory coach under the late Mototaka Kohama, who led the national squad to the 1998 FIBA World Championship in Athens.

“I got really drilled hard by Coach Casey,” Sako said of the present Toronto Raptors bench boss with a smile. “He would make us do weightlifting even after our dinner. And I think that he had an intention to grow me as the leader of the team. But I was desperate to hide from him.

“But as we actually played in the world championship, we got to realize that we wouldn’t battle there unless we trained as hard as we did.”

The JBA also revealed that Argentine Herman Julian Mandole would be the national team’s other assistant coach. The 33-year-old is an assistant under Lamas for San Lorenzo de Almagro in the Argentine top league.

Because San Lorenzo is still playing in the playoffs, the arrival date of Lamas and Mandole is unknown.

The national team, which finished third in the East Asia Championship in Nagano earlier this month, will begin a series of training camps on July 3 to prepare for the FIBA Asia Cup, which will be held in Lebanon from Aug. 8-20.

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