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Saturday, Aug. 19, 2006
Commish Kawachi tips U.S. for top prize
Special to The Japan Times
As the FIBA World Championship tips off Saturday, Toshimitsu Kawachi, the commissioner of the bj-league, Japan's first professional basketball league, shared his thoughts on the tournament, including the Japan national team, the American team and other topics in a wide-ranging interview at his Ginza office, with The Japan Times.
Kawachi, a former Japan national team player and head coach, led Japan to a second-place finish in the 1995 World University Games in Fukuoka. Nowadays, he also serves as an NBA commentator for NHK.
The Japan Times: What will be the highlights of the World Championship?
Kawachi: The U.S. team has failed to win in the last few world championships. But this time, for the first time, it has made a firm three-year plan that it will use the same players until the Beijing Olympics. So I am more curious than anything (about) how the U.S. team is going to play.
Q: Other than the U.S. team, are there any teams that interest you?
A: Of course. Argentina, the winner of the Athens Olympics, and they have beat the (United) States two games in a row. So obviously, they are coming here to win this tournament. But besides them, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil -- all those countries are trying to defeat Argentina.
Q: Argentina? Not the U.S.?
A: No. I don't think anyone is thinking the U.S. is the team to beat. Of course the U.S. is serious this time, and other countries know that.
Q: What is the meaning of the World Championship? What is the difference between the World Championship and the Olympics?
A: For the Americans, the priority is in the Olympics and the World Championship is the second. In Japan, it's the same.
But Brazil and Argentina are really focusing on this World Championship, which they think is the most important tournament. Yet, the Americans are serious this time as well, making the three-year plan and bringing a NCAA-winning coach, Coach K (Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski).
Q: What is your opinion of the Japan National Team? And how did you like the players' selection?
A: It was appropriate. But I am curious about what kind of roles veterans (Takehiko) Orimo and (Takahiro) Setsumasa will have on the team. In other words, I have not fully understood the reason why they were added to the team yet.
Although I know Japan wants to use speed and use (point guard Kei) Igarashi, opponents will try to avoid it. It is a battle.
And if Japan's fast tempo is held and Setsumasa comes in, will they be able to have a fast game?
I don't think they can. Igarashi is a good player.
But can Japan play centering around him for 40 minutes?
I doubt it.
You know, Igarashi joined the national team late.
And they are building the team around him?
This is Zeljko's fourth year, right?
I think the direction of the national team is a bit off his original plan. In my eyes, I don't see what kind of game they want to play.
(But) the selection of (guard Ryota) Sakurai was good. He is tall and can play both at point guard and shooting guard.
Q: So if you were the national team head coach now, who would you want to add?
A: Takuma Watanabe (JBL's Toyota Alvark guard), who is tall (188 cm), can play point guard and score. He can shoot, too. I think it won't be a mismatch for him to take on tall foreign point guards.
Also, Walter Brown Matsushima of the Mitsubishi Electric (Super Kangaroos forward), who plunges for rebounds. I think his play works in international games.
What I hope for the Japanese team is that they learn what they can do and what they can't do, at least. Why I say I can't understand what they want to do is that they study opponents too much, not studying themselves, their own style. If they don't play in their style, they have less chance of winning.
Q: Maybe you should be the next coach of the national team?
A: (Laughs). If I were a head coach, I would like to play totally different basketball. Maybe playing like (Japan soccer coach Ivica) Osim. No dribbling at all. Or I make the big men handle the ball. Say, (Japan center Satoru) Furuta can dribble better than Yao Ming. Something like that.
Q: What results can we expect for the Japan National Team?
A: At best, two wins. If they win two, they'll be able to go through to the final round. And in the worst scenario, they lose all of them. They are putting emphasis on games against Angola and Panama, as two teams that they have to defeat. But to me, personally, it should be New Zealand, not Panama.
Q: There is no bj-league player on the Japan National Team. Why?
A: Because there is no player that is capable of playing for the national team yet. (The players) are not at that level yet. Even if someone could be selected, he can't have a big impact yet. It's not that easy.
Q: In the near future, will some of your players be chosen?
A: In 2007, when they choose a team for the Beijing Olympics qualifier, I believe some bj-league players are going to be candidates for the national team.
Q: Why is the bj-league not involved in the World Championship, in terms of promotion and organizing it, not only regarding the player selection?
A: We've always said we're glad to help out. But they (the Japan Basketball Association) have pride (on not cooperating with the bj-league) and did not talk to us.
However, we have bj-league teams in Saitama (Broncos) and Sendai (89ers), where (there) are venues during the World Championship. They have held basketball clinics under the name of the World Championship.
Sendai, particularly, plays in the same building (Sendai Municipal Gymnasium) as a group league (Group A) site. Through the experience in the bj-league, they know how to organize and entertain, so they were asked by the Association and the administration to help there in many ways.
So, if not directly, we are cooperating with the World Championship.
Q: In the World Championship in Turkey in 2010, will the bj-league be involved more for the tournament and the Japan national team?
A: Definitely, and not only at the players level but also at staff level as well. I really hope the Japan national team does well, and hopefully it leads to boost the popularity of basketball here and boost both the JBL and bj-league.
You know, it is nonsense to compete in this tiny country. We don't intend to fight against them.
Q: How about the U.S.? What are the chances of it winning the championship?
A: I think if they win all of their group games, they will win the whole tournament, and if they lose one in the group league, they will not win. The abilities of the teams are so close, and if someone beats the U.S. in the group stage, everyone can face them with a confidence.
Meanwhile, I think against the U.S., all teams will use a zone defense. To rout a zone defense, you have to pass the ball around and make 3-point shots.
But Dwyane Wade (Miami Heat) and LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers) can break the zone, finishing with dunks. I'd like to see it, personally (laughs).
Q: How about China? Do you have any expectations for them?
A: Of course, I have high expectations on them, other than Yao Ming (Houston Rockets), but I'm looking forward to this guy, Yi Jianlian. Although he is only 18 years old, he is already 212 cm and can play like a forward. Probably, he will be selected in next year's NBA draft.
Q: Finally, what is your prediction for the World Championship final?
A: The United States vs. Spain. And the U.S. takes it. I was simply amazed that the U.S. will play with this team for three years, but if they lose at the beginning, what do they have to do?
They have to put in big centers, I would guess.
Basketball has changed a lot in the world. Nobody could win against the American centers' power, so players above 2 meters in Europe would shoot from (beyond) the arc. If you look around the NBA now, there are a lot of centers from outside the U.S. and (there) are very few big centers even in the States.
So the U.S. had to establish a long-term plan, otherwise they can't win any more.
The only position that the U.S. is superior is shooting guard. Kobe (Bryant), Wade, LeBron -- nobody can stop them at the position. At the other positions, the level of the world has caught up to America.