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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

BJ-LEAGUE

Teamwork makes Evessa worthy champs


Staff writer

This just in: The Osaka Evessa have officially mastered the art of celebrating a championship.

News photo
Osaka Evessa's David Palmer (left) and president Mitsunori Uehara celebrate after winning the team's second straight bj-league championship at Tokyo's Ariake Colosseum on Sunday. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Only two things are needed: raw emotion and, well, a win.

The Evessa, a model of team play trumping individual goals, possess both.

On Sunday, 8,091 spectators at Ariake Colosseum saw Osaka defend its bj-league title by beating the Takamatsu Five Arrows 94-78.

The bj-league chose an appropriate song -- Queen's epic rock anthem "We Are The Champions" -- to coronate the Evessa's second straight title.

As the song blared over the arena's loud speakers, the players embraced each other, the coaches and members of the team's staff, triggering similar responses from the Evessa cheerleaders and supporters in the stands.

And then the Evessa players formed a circle and gave head coach Kensaku Tennichi a well-deserved, three-toss "doage."

Like the 52 rebounds they caught with brute strength and focus in the championship game, led by big man Jeff Newton's 16, they caught Tennichi-san in the same manner.

He didn't fall; they didn't lose their title.

And so, here is summation of the first two chapters in the bj-league's history book: Two years, two Evessa championships.

Not a bad start for the boys from Kansai, eh?

"I think we've done a fairly good job of it (winning) the last two years," said ecstatic Evessa point guard Matt Lottich, who had 11 points and a season-high nine assists. "Business has been winning and business is good."

Lottich was the team's second-leading assist man in the regular season. Power forward Lynn Washington, the 2005-06 league MVP, was No. 1 in that department (he had 112 assists to Lottich's 108), but both are skilled at finding the open man.

Lottich spent time at shooting guard this season, which gave Tennichi a chance to experiment with different lineups (and build a smaller, quicker team which found ways to outclass the league's bigger teams). Equally important, it also gave 24-year-old Haruhito Shishito, a rising talent, more opportunities to run the show from the point.

Smart move.

The best coaches always have their pulse on two things: trying to win now and simultaneously finding ways to improve the team in the future.

And it doesn't hurt that Tennichi has made a concerted effort to learn English. (For example, he's done 30-minute phone interviews with this newspaper. In these conversations, he's demonstrated that he's passionate about every aspect of his team's operation and each player's development and performance.) Yes, the team employs an interpreter, but his ability to communicate in the native tongue of Washington, league MVP David Palmer (who scored 33 in the title game, capping a jaw-dropping stretch of 36 straight double-digit games) and Newton only enhances his ability to get the best out of each player in every practice and every game.

In building a championship team, Tennichi and Evessa assistant coach Yasushi Higa, who hails from Okinawa, have emulated the success of legendary hoops coaches John Wooden, Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson.

In doing so, they've relied on this not-so-secret recipe: Great teams do the simple things well.

The Evessa rarely take a bad shot, miss a defensive assignment or fail to box out.

"We don't want to get confused on the floor, so we practiced hard," were the words Tennichi used to convey this message.

And they win.

In the bj-league's inaugural season, the Evessa went 33-9 in the six-team league. This year, the league expanded to eight teams, adding the Five Arrows and the Toyama Grouses. Osaka, though, was still No. 1, finishing with a 31-11 record.

More than 90 media outlets were on hand on Sunday to chronicle the exploits of the Five Arrows and Evessa and the teams in the third-place game -- the Oita HeatDevils and Niigata Albirex BB.

"It's safe to assume that more than half of those companies opted to ask an Evessa player or coach this question: How do you compare this year's title to last year's?

"Yeah, it's different, but both of them are equally as good," said Newton, a classic defender in the middle. "I think the league is getting better each year and we just showed that we still have what it takes to win it again."

Then, he paused, and added for good measure: "That still means it's historic, don't it? It's the first repeat."

As reporters surrounded Lottich an hour after the game, there was already talk about the Evessa's future.

Do you expect this core group of players to return next season? he was asked.

'I'd love to," Lottich said. "I love Japan and I love our team. We are all going to have to make individual decisions. It's a lot more difficult, I think, being an overseas basketball player to remain intact -- to keep your team intact -- because there are going to be offers from other places.

"But if it all works out, it'd be great to give it a run for a three-peat."

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.



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