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Saturday, April 19, 2008

BJ-LEAGUE

Bryant has Apache poised for title run


Staff writer

Joe Bryant and his famous son, Kobe, have made remarkable turnarounds with their respective basketball teams.

News photo
Cohey Aoki YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The former, affectionately called Jelly by his players (an ode to his playing-days nickname, "Jellybean"), guided the Tokyo Apache to a 27-17 regular season in the bj-league, a season after the injury-plagued squad lost 28 of 40 games.

And now a wild-card postseason game awaits the Apache. Sunday's foe is the Niigata Albirex BB (26-18), a team that beat Tokyo in four of six regular-season contests and previously utilized the services of do-it-all big man Nick Davis, who joined Tokyo in the offseason.

Tipoff is set for 3 p.m. at Tokyo's Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

The latter, whose oeuvre of highlight-reel moves that defy the laws of physics, magazine covers, three championship rings and otherworldly athleticism have made him one of the greatest basketball players on the planet, has transformed himself from a frustrated vocal critic of the Los Angeles Lakers front office to a key ingredient in the Western Conference champions' quest for a fourth title under the tutelage of the Zen Master, Phil Jackson.

Oh, boy, the two have had plenty of things to discuss in the past few months, and now the elder Bryant can continue to tell his son about the overall development of his club into a championship-caliber club.

The Apache are the bj-league's hottest team entering the postseason.

Want proof? Tokyo's nine wins in its past 10 games will raise the blood pressure of any opposing coach. In this case, that man is the Albirex's Masaya Hirose, who has guided his team to the playoffs in the previous two seasons.

Like a gifted sculptor working in his studio for weeks without end, Bryant has crafted a similar masterpiece in his studio of choice, the basketball court.

To begin with, Bryant opted to switch All-Star guard Cohey Aoki from his customary starting point guard position to the team's sixth-man role.

Aoki has thrived in that role, and the team has benefited from it. He remains a dangerous weapon for the Apache, having scored 30 or more points in six games.

"With Cohey coming off the bench, teams are forced to have to match up their personnel with ours," Bryant said. "And I don't think there's a team in this league that can match up with him."

Now Aoki is explosive, well-rested and dangerous as a scoring option for the Apache. And he teams up well with backcourt mate Jun Iwasa when they enter the game together.

Veteran point man Darin Satoshi Maki, a third-year Apache player, has provided steady, not flashy production after moving into the starting lineup down the stretch. He finished with 95 assists, 44 turnovers and 52 steals.

The addition of Masashi Joho, a two-time title winner with the Osaka Evessa before joining the Apache in the offseason, is a quality slasher with the ability to jump-stop and bury a jumper from anywhere on the court.

Joho's speed with the ball in his hands is a sight to behold. He zooms through the lane and weaves through traffic, as well as any player in the league.

"In the offseason, I want him to work on understanding how to use his speed," Bryant said of Joho. "He doesn't always have to go 100 mph . . . By saving his energy, picking his spots, he can become a more dangerous player."

Forward Jumpei Nakama has made a strong return to the rotation, regaining the lateral quickness and stamina he possessed before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament last February. Nakama worked vigorously to rehab the knee and rejoined the starting unit two months ago.

Bryant chuckled when recounting the story about how Nakama wanted to start in November, but the coach wanted him to be eased back into the rotation.

"He's a strong defender," Bryant said of Nakama. "He is strong enough to guard American players . . . and that makes us stronger."

In the frontcourt, Davis, who is always among the league's top three in rebounding and blocked shots, has made a super-size difference in his first season in Kanto.

He embraced the move from Niigata and never appears anything less than a steadying influence on the team's younger players.

Also up front, power forward Dameion Baker has become the prototypical blue-collar worker around the basket, getting tip-ins, pulling down boards, boxing out and hitting shots at a 61.1 percent clip.

Yet despite a deep, versatile rotation, the Apache didn't coast through the season without overcoming obstacles.

"You never want to lose, but we learned things about ourselves by struggling," Bryant said, reflecting on the team's midseason slump. "We wondered if we were any good . . . and we became a better team.

"I'm just so happy with the turnaround the team made."

The team was 18-16 and at a crossroads with 10 games remaining.

Led by a man who describes himself as more of a teacher than a basketball coach, who lets his players play and publicly praises them all for their accomplishments, the Apache hit their stride in the season's stretch run.

Backup pivotman Dean Browne, a former high school dropout from New York City who never played organized ball until junior college and earned his GED in Idaho, gave Bryant another energizing force off the bench.

Getting dunks, rebounds and blocked shots, diving on the floor for a loose ball — and not necessarily in that order — are things Browne excels at and provided in bunches during the season-ending stretch of games.

"He may foul out in 10 minutes," Bryant said of Browne, "but he will make things happen (and) maximize his minutes when he's on the floor."

Said Browne, a native of Barbados: "Just let me play . . . I want to bring energy to the team whenever I'm on the floor, and that's what Jelly lets me do."

Browne previously played for the Tochigi Brex, the JBL2 team that makes the jump to the JBL's top division in the fall. He said he welcomed the move to a team where his skills were appreciated, recognized and utilized.

"On this team, I fit in," he said bluntly.

What's now become clear, too, is that John "Helicopter" Humphrey, the league's scoring champ in its first two seasons, is more dangerous when he is not expected to score 30 points a game. By picking his spots, Humphrey has become a more lethal offensive option.

Keeping fresh and conserving energy, like he did in the early stages of the second half last Sunday against the Oita HeatDevils, Humphrey had a spring in his step and an extra few centimeters of elevation when he attacked the basket in the fourth quarter and overtime.

It paid off.

Humphrey's floater in the closing seconds gave Tokyo a one-point win and a jolt of momentum as it closed the book on the regular season and switched gears to prepare for the wild-card game.

"It's simple," Bryant said. "Win or you have to go home. Nobody wants to stop playing."

Indeed, a fellow named Kobe shares the same sentiment.



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