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Retiring coach Richardson leaves lasting legacy on Golden Kings, Okinawa basketball

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Successful organizations have people who inspire others and encourage them to build an environment where success is a top priority.

Look around you, and you’ll notice them.

Exhibit A: Keith Richardson served a vital role for the Ryukyu Golden Kings for nine seasons. As an assistant coach, he helped steer the club to remarkable success, including nine straight playoff berths (eight in the bj-league and last season’s appearance in the inaugural B. League postseason), five championship game appearances in the former league and four titles.

Richardson wore many hats for the organization. He was a mentor, a friend, a sage who could dispense advise to foreign newcomers on the team.

But now Richardson has decided to step away from his full-time involvement with the Golden Kings, though he will remain with the organization as an adviser. (Originally, he was a volunteer adviser during the team’s first season, 2007-08.)

Richardson, who arrived in Okinawa 33 years ago at the age of 19, is employed by the U.S. Marine Corps, and his responsibilities in logistics as a distribution facility manager have increased, prompting him to decide it was time to focus on his day job.

“Due to the demands of my other job I could not commit to being a full-time assistant,” he recently wrote on Facebook, “so I decided that the 2016-17 season would be my last in that capacity….”

Richardson reflected on his thrilling run with the team, describing the team as a family and said camaraderie has been a chief trait.

“It’s always been a tight-knit group of guys,” Richardson told Hoop Scoop. “I will miss the people and players associated with the team and the game. I have had the pleasure of meeting so many great people with this job and the relationships have culminated into lifetime friends and now as a family. … I guess it reminds me of my times in the U.S. Marines.”

Memories are etched in the 52-year-old Richardson’s mind from his nine seasons as a Kings assistant. Of course, No. 1 on the list is the team’s 2008-09 championship. To reach the final, Ryukyu defeated the three-time defending champion Osaka Evessa in the Western Conference final, a game in which ex-Osaka star Jeff Newton had 50 points and 20 rebounds to guide the club down the stretch. It was, Richardson said, “an incredible season and an unbelievable comeback…”

Other top-five memories:

*An April Fool’s Day prank played on Anthony McHenry and Newton in 2009. “Thanks to Eric Hamilton, a great supporter of Kings basketball, the players and me,” he said.

*Competitive practices. “….Every day was a battle,” he recalled. “Players vs. players, coaches vs. players.”

*Winning the second, third and fourth titles, the last one in the final bj-league season.

*Friendships. Example: “Joe ‘Jellybean’ Bryant (who led the Tokyo Apache) was one of the first coaches I befriended in the Kings inaugural season and we still stay in touch,” he said.

Richardson isn’t disappearing from Japan’s basketball circles, and won’t be a stranger to the Kings.

Or as he put it in an interview: “I plan to be at all or most of the Kings home games, and I may travel to see some away games and I may also travel to see some of the former Kings players’ games in the B2 division. I am also planning to travel to Europe to watch some Euroleague games later in the season, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

Affectionately called Coach K by players and fellow coaches and fans throughout the Okinawa islands and Japan, Richardson’s day-to-day impact will be missed.

Former Golden Kings bench boss Dai Oketani, who worked alongside Richardson from 2008-12, including two championship squads, had glowing praise for his ex-colleague. Oketani commended Richardson for his never-wavering commitment to the team.

“I respect him both as a coach and as a person. His dedication to the team was just unbelievable,” noted Oketani, now the Evessa sideline supervisor. “I’m really proud of the time where we worked together for building a (team) culture. I take off my hat to him. Thanks, Coach Keith.”

Asked to pinpoint Richardson’s best attributes as a mentor, Oketani cited his communication skills, dealing with both players and fellow coaches.

“You know, players sometimes get upset,” Oketani said. “If he is there, he can talk to (the players) before the head coach. He can listen to players, too. And then players calm down and are ready to play again.”

In recent days, heartfelt tributes and words of praise for Richardson flooded this columnist’s email inbox. The power of social media also demonstrated the reach of Coach K’s popularity after his Facebook post on Aug. 19, when he formally announced he wouldn’t be on the Ryukyu coaching staff this coming season.

One Ryukyu supporter posted these comments: “What an impeccable job you’ve done! Thank you so much.”

Another fan wrote this: “I appreciate your decade of contributions to our organization. You are the bridge between Okinawa and U.S., (and) that brings us four championships.”

Former bj-league referee Tim Greene, who has worked in the WNBA and NBA Development League since leaving Japan, wrote this: “Great job, brother. Always respected you on that sideline.”

***

Richardson’s upbringing in a small farming community (Snow Camp) in North Carolina inspired his lifelong love for the game. He credited the legendary, late University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith and the Tar Heels for planting those seeds.

“I have read so much about how Coach Smith was a player’s coach and how he always made all of the players around him so much better. Not just better basketball players but better people,” Richardson said. “Being so close to the school I watched so many greats come through there the likes of Michael Jordan, Phil Ford, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Walter Davis to name a few. That entire program even to today inspires me. There is so much tradition and honor in playing for that school that I don’t see at many colleges in the U.S.”

Clearly, Smith and UNC played an important role in Richardson’s basketball education, but he never stopped competing, never stopped learning in the years to come as a player and coach.

His story is unique. Year after year, he strengthened his ties to Okinawa basketball.

Listen to Richardson tell the story:

“…After joining the Marines and coming to Okinawa at the age of 19, I played lots of military varsity-level basketball with several teams in Okinawa and later became a player/coach as our teams at times did not have a coach, so I would assume both duties. At this time I was starting to see I wanted to be a coach and thought I could be leader from the sidelines.

“After my tenure in the Marines and as I moved on to civilian life I began playing in many of the Japanese club leagues here in Okinawa with a few different teams and later joined on with coach Tsutomu Isa and his club teams, Daiyone and Okiso. We had much success with many Okinawan players that had returned to Okinawa after playing in the JBL/JBL2, winning many Kyushu tournaments and advancing far into the All-Japan Club tournaments. During this time I was also still connected to the military teams and in 2003 I became a head coach for a team called the Oki Suns (consisting of military and civilian players) and we competed against other base varsity-level teams.

“During this period military varsity basketball was being played a very high level due to many former D1 and college basketball players joining the military after college and just a great group of basketball players on the military bases in Okinawa, many of whom were also playing with Japanese club teams, one being Bryan Simpson, who was in the USAF and later was drafted by the Kings and became a teammate and a great friend of mine.

“I was also an assistant coach under Coach Jon Fick with the American High School Kubasaki here in Okinawa for two years in which my oldest son Josh was a player and we went on to win the 2007 Far East High School Basketball championship. Another great memory of my basketball coaching adventure.”

Coach K’s jump from high school assistant to Kings assistant worked out well.

More winning.

“After joining the Kings I had the pleasure of learning from some great coaches,” he said. “Coach Dai Oketani was the first and his philosophies I saw in him some of the same characteristics as I had read about in Coach Smith of UNC and he is a very good teacher of the game and his development of players is one of the top around.

“Later I had the pleasure of coaching under Koto Toyama. Koto brought a lot of energy and demanded that from his players and coaches alike.

“Then for the last four seasons I was under my good friend Okinawa basketball guru Tsutomu Isa, Isa was a lot like Coach Dai in his philosophy.”

While serving as a team adviser for the 2007-08 campaign, Richardson paid attention to how then-bench boss Hernando Planells, who’s currently a Duke University women’s assistant coach, ran the team. It was helpful.

“Even though I did not get to coach with him, I did watch and learn so much from him,” he said. “So as you can see I had the opportunity to learn from so many great coaches and different philosophies and styles.”

Richardson is grateful for all of these lessons.

“One thing I have learned over the years is as a coach you have to teach but you also have to be someone who instills confidence in your players, something I have tried to do even more as I get older and players are so young,” he said. “Guys nowadays have lots of speed and athleticism but sometimes lack the skill sets and in my eyes this could be because of AAU and not enough skill training but that is changing more and more now with private trainers and coaches taking their teams to skill camps.”

***

Taking a step back and analyzing the sustained excellence of the Okinawa organization, you must recognize that it has had a lot to do with continuity in the front office and on the coaching staff. Isa worked as an assistant for the club for its inaugural season before a long run as an assistant and head man for the past four seasons before being replaced by Norio Sassa in July.

Richardson was a necessary part of that winning formula. Everyone valued his input and knowledge of the game.

He also embraced and embodied the organization’s winning culture.

“I’m extremely proud to have been a part of a team that has developed and helped guys go on to play long-term careers,” said Richardson before thanking team president Tatsuro Kimura and front-office executive Jun Yasunaga for giving him the opportunity to be part of the team. “It speaks highly of the organization, the coaches and the staff. That hard-work ethic that many of the players had here is a big part of that.”

And Richardson helped make sure the team thrived.

“He was the key to a lot of the success the Kings organization accomplished,” Newton, the only six-time title-winner in bj-league history, including three with the Kings, told Hoop Scoop”.From bridging the language barrier to putting us through extra work when needed. He went above and beyond to make our off-the court lives as easy a transition as possible.”

“I think I can speak for every American player that has come through the organization when I say Keith made all our lives that much better,” the former Japan basketball legend, whose No. 50 was retired by the Kings, added. “One of the most generous, genuine persons I know.”

Kevin Steenberge, who played for the Kings in the 2009-10 season and now works as a firefighter in San Diego County, has followed the sustained success of the Kings from afar. He knows as well as anyone that Richardson became an omnipresent part of the team’s identity.

“Keith is and has been since day one part of the fabric that makes up the Kings organization,” Steenberge observed. “He truly has been the only rock that has remained a constant. Players and coaches have come and gone and we have all benefited from his basketball knowledge, leadership and friendship. It’s a shame to see him leave the team, but he will always be such a vital part of the team’s success and the fond memories all of us who played for him share.”

Steenberge added: “Keith knows a huge amount about the game of basketball and not just X’s and O’s. He understands the mental portion of the game — the emotional roller coaster of a season or games, and he was always a steady reassuring voice from the bench. Everyone was always open to hearing his advice or guidance because he truly treated us all as family. Being born in North Carolina myself it didn’t hurt.

“Keith is humble, funny, caring and a genuine student of the game who was able to be this liaison between American and local players, coaches and staff. He has spent so much of his life in the culture of Japan and specifically Okinawa that he helped everyone understand one another better and helped create the Kings family. What’s cool about Keith is that he has been a part of Okinawan basketball since long before the Kings were in existence. He raised his kids playing on the island and coached local youth. I think anyone who knows or loves basketball on Okinawa knows Keith and he is an ambassador for the game wherever he goes.

“I know that he will continue to be involved with the Kings and the game however he can and he will always be a huge part of the amazing basketball culture with the amazing people of Okinawa.”

Sharpshooter David Palmer, who starred for the Evessa, Golden Kings (2010-12) and Kyoto Hannaryz, witnessed Coach K’s winning persona as both an opponent and as a member of the perennial powerhouse squad before retiring as a Hannaryz player in December 2015.

“Coach Keith is an amazing person,” the Southern Utah alum told Hoop Scoop. “He was always open to helping players and their families in so many ways, on and off the court. He was always there with kind words of encouragement, to open up the gym and help me get up extra shots, extra weightlifting sessions, or to just be a friend to talk to. He was a wonderful combination of coach/friend/counselor/teacher. His greatest impact may have been on the community of Okinawa as a whole. He knows everyone on the island who is even remotely related to basketball. High school coaches, players, trainers, fans, they all know and love Coach Keith.

“I will forever be grateful to him for making my family’s time spent in Okinawa such a wonderful experience,” Palmer added. ” For many of us, he is much more than a coach, he is a friend for life. “

Personally helping Kings players achieve success, Richardson “prepared wonderful scouting reports on individual players,” Palmer said, describing his mentor as “very positive, enthusiastic and energetic.”

Indeed, those are irreplaceable traits.

Just ask Palmer.

“His passion for the game is contagious,” Palmer told me, “and he is truly selfless in his desire to see the team succeed.”

***

Die-hard Kings supporter Tommie McGowan, who has followed the team since its inception and provided keen insights for Hoop Scoop from time to time, thinks it’ll be a tough time for the proud franchise to be without Richardson’s steady presence in the locker room and on the court.

“I think losing Keith will be a big blow to the Kings, especially losing Coach Mu ( Isa) at the same time,” McGowan, who lives in Okinawa, commented. “Keith worked with players on an individual basis to help them improve their game, his knowledge of the game of basketball (American style and Japanese style) along with his leadership skills really assisted all players in understanding how different each style is and how they are the same. That made the adjustment much easier for the players and the coaching staff.

“I really hate to see him leave but I understand his reason. If the revolving door on coaches over here was not spinning so hard, I am sure he would have made an excellent head coach.”

Perhaps that challenge will be presented to Keith Richardson in the future.

He has a track record of success and an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. So consider this a ringing endorsement for him someday, somewhere.