Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Steady Suzuki continues to plow own furrow with SeaHorses

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Some things never change.

Among the constants in Japan, of course, are beautiful fireworks during summer festivals, friendly small-town merchants and an endless array of delicious noodle shops.

Add this item to the list: SeaHorses Mikawa mainstay Kimikazu Suzuki’s reign as head coach.

He took over as the SeaHorses boss in 1995 for the JBL’s Aisin club, and has remained in charge ever since. (While Suzuki has been a constant presence on the sideline for the SeaHorses for more than two decades, contrast his reign with the top political office in the land. There have been 11 prime ministers since ’95, including current leader Shinzo Abe.)

The entire landscape of Japan pro basketball has undergone profound changes in the 21st century, which led to the creation of the B. League as a 45-team, three-division entity before last season.

Meanwhile, Suzuki just keeps on running his club and consistently overseeing a title contender year after year after year.

Suzuki, now 57, had a brief taste of the big time in 1996, serving as an NBA Summer League coach with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Since then, he’s carved out his niche as one of the most accomplished team leaders in Japan sports.

And the final chapter of Suzuki’s career with the SeaHorses has yet to be written.

Coming off a 46-14 season and the top finish in the West Division, Mikawa appears poised to be in the hunt for the 2017-18 top-flight crown.

It’s become an annual expectation for Suzuki’s teams with a track record of success that bridges different eras, with the Japan Basketball Association-run league changing names from the JBL to the then-rebranded Super League, then back to the JBL.

From 2001-04, the SeaHorses finished first in the regular season every year, then did the same from 2008-13, and Suzuki steered the club to end-of-season championships in 2003, ’04, ’08, ’09 and ’13 — with another first-place finish, this time in the West, and title in the 2014-15 NBL season.

All told, the SeaHorses have had 11 consecutive winning seasons. Continuity clearly has something to do with it. Sticking with Suzuki has paid off for the franchise.

Preseason preparation

Last weekend, the B. League Early Cup got underway, giving teams a start for the upcoming season. Three new head coaches experienced tourney-winning starts.

In the six-team Kanto Early Cup, the Alvark Tokyo, guided by first-year head coach Luka Pavicevic, captured the top prize with a pair of wins, followed by the Chiba Jets Funabashi whom they defeated 77-73 on Sunday to take the title. The Nos. 3-6 spots were in this order: Kawasaki Brave Thunders, Tochigi Brex, Sunrockers Shibuya and Yokohama B-Corsairs.

The Ryukyu Golden Kings, led by new bench boss Norio Sassa, finished first in the Kansai Early Cup, placing ahead of the Shiga Lakestars with a 74-68 win on Sunday. Backcourt star Ryuichi Kishimoto paced Ryukyu with 14 points in the title clash. Placing third through sixth: Nishinomiya Storks, Osaka Evessa, Kumamoto Volters and Bambitious Nara.

Elsewhere, the Toyama Grouses triumphed in the Tokai Hokuriku Early Cup, with new sideline supervisor Miodrag Rajkovic calling the shots. The Nagoya Diamond Dolphins placed runner-up, falling 86-83 in Sunday’s clash with the Grouses, with the Shinshu Brave Warriors, San-en NeoPhoenix, Niigata Albirex BB and Levanga Hokkaido finishing third through sixth, respectively.

The Tohoku Early Cup is scheduled for Friday through Sunday.

Growing as a coach

Damian Johnson’s ties to Japan pro basketball will always be linked to the 2010-11 bj-league season.

During that disaster-interrupted campaign, the University of Minnesota alum made his mark as a rookie forward for the Oita HeatDevils, whose rebuilding effort under promising young coach L.J. Hepp was halted when he was dismissed days after the Great East Japan Earthquake. For Oita, Johnson was a gutsy standout on both ends of the court, playing alongside established star Matt Lottich, a one-time floor leader on the Evessa’s championship dynasty.

After leaving the HeatDevils, who are now known as the Ehime Orange Vikings and play in the B2, Johnson starred in the NBA Development League (Bakersfield Jam, Springfield Armor) before moving on to the South East Australian Basketball League. His Down Under teams won three consecutive championships, the first two with the Mount Gambier Pioneers (2014, 2015), and last year with the Bendigo Braves. Johnson earned SEABL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2015 and ’16.

Now 30, he’s hungry to establish himself as a coach after retiring as a player last year.

A few months ago, Johnson took over as the new boys’ basketball varsity head coach at North High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Indeed, his first season at the helm represents an important step in his journey to move up the coaching ranks in the years to come.

Asked on Tuesday if he has a timetable in mind to move up to the college game, Johnson said he’s focused on learning his craft.

“I don’t have a goal in mind yet, but I want to get to the highest level possible and I have been asking advice from my former coaches and my teammates who coach now,” Johnson told The Japan Times. “I talk to (Valparaiso University coach) Matt Lottich about coaching in college as often as possible.”

Like this reporter and many others who have closely followed the cerebral Lottich’s career, Johnson believes his ex-HeatDevils teammate has a bright future in the coaching business.

“He will be a head coach at a major university soon,” Johnson predicted.

Johnson closely follows successful college coaches Tony Bennett (Virginia) and Shaka Smart (Texas), admitting he tries to emulate how they strategize defensively.

He also said he admires veteran bench boss Bob MacKinnon Jr. of the NBA G League’s Texas Legends.

Johnson worked the past two years as an assistant coach at Eden Prairie High in Minnesota, focusing on scouting, player development and defensive game planning.