Basketball

WJBL star Yuko Oga keen to contribute even after retiring from playing

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Star player Yuko Oga is bringing the curtain down on her storied career at the end of this season.

But she has no feelings of melancholy. The Toyota Antelopes point guard, who announced that the 2017-18 season would be her last as a player before the campaign tipped off last month, is looking forward to the next step in her post-playing career.

But that does not mean Oga is not giving her all on the court. She wants to win as much as she always has, and does whatever it takes to give her team a chance to win games and, ultimately, the championship this year. She also wants to help the team develop into a perennial winner in the Women’s Japan Basketball League.

Oga would definitely like to round off her career by capturing the championship trophy at the end of this year. Yet that is not her main focus. For Oga, her impending retirement will not affect her desire to develop the team and guide it to victories.

“No doubt about it,” Oga said, when asked if she is concentrating on developing the team for the future rather than ending her career as a champion, after the Antelopes cruised past the Haneda Vickies 91-63 at Tokyo’s Ota City General Gymnasium on Saturday.

In the WJBL, the Jx-Eneos Sunflowers have unquestionably been the team to beat in recent years. They have won the league title for the past nine straight years, and also completed an undefeated season in 2016-17.

In an attempt to overthrow the Sunflowers, the Antelopes made some major acquisitions over the summer. The Nagoya-based club added several national team-level players, such as Moeko Nagaoka, Evelyn Mawuli and former LSU guard Rina Hill.

But having star players doesn’t automatically transform a team into a powerhouse. You also have to build chemistry and find the right tactics to match the personnel.

Oga is busy creating winning formulas, instead of making the season a farewell tour for herself.

The Antelopes have looked good with a 10-2 record and are currently second in the standings behind the unbeaten Sunflowers. But Oga is far from satisfied and believes the squad has not yet reached its maximum potential.

“Coach (Don) Beck is saying this, too. But while we have the talent this year, we have to identify where our strengths are and in what areas we can dominate,” said Oga, who played for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury in 2008 and Shanxi Xing Rui Flame of the Chinese league in the 2013-14 season. “And as a point guard, I have to make it even clearer for my teammates than last year.”

As a 35-year-old veteran playmaker, Oga knows she needs to vocally lead her younger teammates, who could easily panic when they don’t play well and lose games.

“When we lose one game, they put their heads down because they are so young,” said Oga, who previously played for Jx-Eneos for 12 years and was named MVP of the 2007-08 season. “But when they get going, this team is able to score 20, 30 points a quarter. So I try to take care with every word I say to them.”

Oga, a long-time former national team player, is perhaps one of the ultimate floor leaders in Japanese basketball, men or women.

Beck, who came to the Antelopes in the same year as Oga, said she is “one of my top two or three favorite players I’ve ever coached.”

On the Toyota team, Oga and Mawuli are the only players to have started every game so far this year. And Oga is still playing at a high level, which makes it a little hard for some people to believe she will no longer pull on a jersey beyond this season.

Oga, the leading vote-getter for the West team for the Dec. 16 WJBL All-Star Game in Tokyo, has averaged 5.8 points, 3.0 assists with a 43.8 percent 3-point shooting this season. Her scoring has dropped by nearly four points from last year, but that is perhaps because she does not need to attack the basket as much this year, given the addition of other star players.

“To be honest with you, I think she’s playing better than she did last season at this point,” Beck said. “She’s in tremendous condition, she takes unbelievable good care of her body, she’s got a very strict diet. So she’s a true professional. I mean, the athletes in Japan can learn from what she does, how she approaches, her profession and her craft.”

Sometimes, we see athletes take some time off to give their minds and bodies a rest after retirement. But Oga is planning to keep herself occupied in her post-player career.

Although she will hang up her shoes while she still has some gas left in the tank, Oga hopes to be associated with the game she has always embraced for a long time. The Yamagata native is looking to become a basketball coach in the future.

Oga is considering studying abroad, partially because she wants to master English, which she believes is “essential” to give herself better a opportunity to learn coaching through different variety of leagues and countries, including the WNBA and even the B. League, Japan’s top men’s circuit.

The WJBL does not allow import players, but Oga feels fortunate to have played at Toyota under Beck, who has brought an American/European style of basketball culture and atmosphere to the team.

Oga, whose father is a former head coach for the Yamagata University women’s team, insists Japanese women’s basketball would raise its level further if the players were given the chance to go overseas.

“I genuinely think that the league needs to support players going to other countries going forward,” said Oga, who has been a vocal critic of the league for not promoting its products enough.

Beck, who said Oga would make “an excellent coach,” said that he would stay in touch with her even after her retirement.

“She’s one of the most enjoyable basketball people I’ve ever been around,” said Beck, who previously coached the Toyota Alvark (now called the Alvark Tokyo) men’s team. “I’m going to try to stay connected as long as I can in some capacity.”

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