Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Evessa coach Dai Oketani brings passion to the game

by Ed Odeven

While Japan pro basketball dealt with massive changes over the past dozen years, Dai Oketani built his credentials as one of the most respected, accomplished head coaches here.

Oketani has been one constant in a sea of swirling changes, what with the arrival and end of the bj-league (from six teams at the beginning to 24 for the final campaign in 2015-16), the metamorphosis of the Japan Basketball Association and the eventual creation of the B. League.

The high-energy mentor took over as head coach of the Oita HeatDevils, replacing ex-NBA center Jawann Oldham as the one calling the shots in January 2006 after the club’s 4-12 start.

Oketani has seen a lot of faces come and go as he’s established himself as a coaching mainstay, having stints with the HeatDevils, Ryukyu Golden Kings (he guided them to two bj-league titles), Iwate Big Bulls (he transformed the club into a bj-league title contender, going 115-41 in regular-season games and a trip to the Final Four in his last season there) and Osaka Evessa (his current post since 2015).

On game days, Oketani is fiery and passionate and wears his heart on his sleeve as he gestures to his players and eyes the action unfolding before him from the sideline.

On Saturday, Oketani turns 40. (Yes, he shares the same birthday as Emperor Akihito. Perhaps he was always destined for big things in coaching.)

In a recent interview, Oketani was asked to reflect on his passion for basketball and coaching at age 30, and how, if at all, it has changed as he approached his 40th birthday.

At 30, Oketani said, he “cared a lot about the development of the game and the improvement of Japanese basketball (at all levels).” He added that he really wanted to see Japan improve on a global scale. That passion, he explained, is a driving force in his work.

At that time, Oketani recalled, he was focused on “winning and teaching the fundamentals of the game.”

In essence, nothing’s changed.

After a game earlier this month against the Alvark Tokyo in Tachikawa, Oketani remarked that Japan basketball has the “potential to keep getting better and better.” He admitted that he wants to play a part in the growth of the game, teaching the finer points of the game and also helping to develop the next generation of players. He cited teamwork and individual excellence as hallmarks of what it takes to keep “improving step by step.”

Oketani is an enduring symbol of the numerous changes within Japan pro hoops. His pro career as a coach began in Kyushu. He experienced the ultimate success with an Okinawan team that was entering its second season when he took over as head coach and put his stamp on the franchise, setting the gold standard for future expectations each year for Ryukyu. He proved that a Tohoku-based team could emerge as a title contender and then returned to his roots to lead the Evessa, the bj-league’s first championship dynasty.

Hailing from Kyoto, Oketani is working to carry the youthful Evessa (7-17 overall record) to the next level.

It won’t be easy, but he’s always put in the work and showed enjoyment in the process.

That passion can’t be faked.

In a November 2008 interview with The Japan Times, Keith Richardson, a longtime Kings assistant until last season, said: “Coach Dai is the heart of the team. We all function around him as one. His knowledge of basketball is just phenomenal. He is always thinking ahead of the other teams and makes adjustments to the game very fast.”

Credit Oketani for a never-wavering commitment to his craft.

Or, as he told reporters, he wants to “learn from the best.”

That mindset has served him well so far and will continue to do so.

Work in progress

After a weekend road trip, the Yokohama B-Corsairs improved to 6-17, with a two-game sweep of the Toyama Grouses, their first winning streak of the season. (They slipped to 6-18 with a loss on Wednesday, though, to the Niigata Albirex BB.)

New team adviser Tom Wisman, who guided the Tochigi Brex to the 2016-17 league title, brings a wealth of experience to the club. Wisman joined the B-Corsairs late last month.

“As a team, we’re just trying to get better each and every day to give ourselves a chance to win games,” Yokohama forward Jeff Parmer told The Japan Times. “Winning these two games against Toyama on the road was a huge step for us towards achieving our daily goals we have set for ourselves as a team.”

Indeed, it’s a step in the right direction for Yokohama.

“Coach Tom has been a tremendous help to us in the few weeks he’s been here helping us. Just his experience alone has been huge for us as a team,” Parmer said. “Us understanding the correct preparation we need on a day-to-day basis is one of the many things he’s shown us in the short amount of time he’s been here with us.”

Alvark talk

Alvark Tokyo big man Alex Kirk, one of the league’s elite big frontcourt players, is impressed with the way the team has developed into a cohesive unit in Luka Pavicevic’s first season at the helm.

Like Kirk, many of the Alvark’s key contributors are in their first season with the club, including former NBA forward Jawad Williams and guards Seiya Ando and Genki Kojima.

“We’re playing against teams that have been together,” Kirk said in a recent interview, “whereas we’re, like, coming together. . . . We’ve had a lot of success and hopefully we can just keep building on top of that. So far it’s been really, really good.”

He added: “. . . We’re definitely on the right path.”

Asked to offer an assessment of rookie small forward Yudai Baba, one of Tokyo’s most exciting players, Kirk responded by saying, “He’s really explosive and definitely for a Japanese player very unique. You don’t see athletes typically like him compared with some of the Japanese athletes we’ve played against. By far, he’s the most athletic one I’ve seen.”

Why?

“Part of it’s the leaping ability,” Kirk observed. “He’s just an explosive athlete that is on his way to becoming a basketball player.”

The 22-year-old Baba frequently drives to the basket, slicing past defenders or soaring through the air for a layup or dunk. His speed and aggressive offensive moves are an impressive combination. It’s a part of his game that he’s focused on improving, Kirk said.

“As his career goes on, he’s going to see those areas where to attack and dunk,” added Kirk. “He’s also going to see those opportunities where he needs to shoot and he needs to pass. He’s going to be a really good player.”

Kirk would like to see Baba have a chance to play in an overseas basketball league.

“It would be awesome for him to be able to play somewhere else in the world just to see him gain experience and that type of thing,” Kirk said. “He could be a really, really good player, and I think he’ll work hard and do the work and get it done.”

Through Wednesday, Baba is averaging 7.5 points, 3.0 assists, 1.5 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks in 23 games (two starts). He scored a season-high 22 points on Nov. 17 against the Levanga Hokkaido, including three dunks. He also had a pair of two-dunk games in October. He had a season-best four steals on Sunday against the Brex and a season-high eight rebounds on Oct. 15 against Yokohama.

Baba is scheduled to compete in the Slam Dunk Contest at the All-Star Game in Kumamoto on Jan. 14 along with Robert Sacre (Sunrockers Shibuya), Seaun Eddy (Nishinomiya Storks), Tyler Stone (Shimane Susanoo Magic), Ira Brown (Ryukyu Golden Kings) and Josh Duinker (Kumamoto Volters).

League leaders

Top flight statistical leaders (through Wednesday) include:

✹Scoring — Niigata’s Davante Gardner (29.4). On Wednesday, the Marquette University alum scored 42 points, making 16 of 24 shots from the floor and 10 of 12 at the free-throw line. He’s scored 40 or more points five times this season, with a season-best output of 47 on Oct. 15.

✹Rebounding — Tochigi’s Ryan Rossiter (11.4)

✹Assists — Toyama’s Naoki Uto (6.9)

✹Steals — Chiba’s Michael Parker (1.8)

✹Blocks — Yokohama’s Hasheem Thabeet (2.7)

B2 stat leaders (through Monday) are as follows:

✹Scoring — Kanazawa’s Andrew Fitzgerald (22.0)

✹Rebounding — Kagawa’s Reggie Warren (12.3)

✹Assists — Kumamoto’s (Takumi Furuno (6.8)

✹Steals — Akita’s Takuya Nakayama (2.1)

✹Blocks — Ibaraki’s Chukwudiebere Maduabum (2.0)

Who’s hot?

The 21-3 Rizing Fukuoka Zephyr and Akita Northern Happinets have identical 21-3 records. Fukuoka is 10-1 at home; Akita is 13-2.

Who’s not?

The 2-22 Iwate Big Bulls have dropped 17 consecutive games in the second division, a B2 record.

Brex update

Since starting the season with a woeful 2-7 record with Kenji Hasegawa at the helm and 5-8 before he stepped down, the defending champion Brex have climbed closer to .500 with his replacement, Ryuzo Anzai running the show.

Anzai served as a Brex assistant from 2013-17.

Tochigi is now 5-6 under Anzai, four games under .500 overall in the ultra-competitive six-team East Division.

Meanwhile, veteran forward Jeff Gibbs has been added to the active roster after being placed on the league’s injury list on July 21. The move was announced on Tuesday.

The 37-year-old Gibbs ruptured his left Achilles tendon in the championship game in May and has endured a long, strenuous recovery with hour after hour of physical rehabilitation.

Newcomer Cedric Bozeman said the team has improved steadily since Hasegawa stepped down.

“I think our intensity level has really picked up the last few weeks,” the former UCLA and Atlanta Hawks player said. “And also, I think, we are just playing for each other harder and giving ourselves a chance to win.”

Watching Gibbs prepare for his return to the team, Bozeman acknowledged the team will receive a big boost when Gibbs returns.

“Jeff is going to be huge for us,” Bozeman said. “I played against him in the past so I know what type of player he is. He brings a lot of toughness and inside play and intensity, which is really going to help us in the long run.”

Gibbs had four points and four rebounds with an assist in 13-plus minutes on Wednesday in his season debut against the Sunrockers Shibuya.

Pavicevic’s perspective

After facing the Brex for the second straight day on Sunday, Pavicevic provided his analysis of Anzai’s chief strengths as a head coach

“From the year that I spent on the national team of Japan , what I know is that Coach Anzai has been in the (Tochigi) program, he’s been coaching with international coaches, Antanas Sireika and Tom Wisman,” Pavicevic told reporters. “And preparing and watching the team play, I can say that they play with the necessary intensity with a lot of energy and toughness on defense, they play very fast on offense, and they have really good ball movement from side to side. So basically what we have is a high-level basketball team playing high-level basketball.”

Anzai turned 37 on Nov. 10.

Wednesday rewind

Results of Wednesday’s nine top-flight games:

Jets 97, Levanga 73

Sunrockers 66, Brex 63

Brave Thunders 77 Alvark 67

Albirex BB 90, B-Corsairs 82

Grouses 96, Diamond Dolphins 64

NeoPhoenix 72, SeaHorses 69

Evessa 63, Lakestars 62

Susanoo Magic 107, Storks 84

Hannaryz 69, Golden Kings 68

Feedback

Contact the reporter: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp