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Friday, Sept. 18, 2009

Bryant era ends; Apache select Aoki as new coach

Staff writer

The Joe Bryant era has ended in Tokyo.

News photo
New challenge: After leading the Takamatsu Five Arrows to three straight bj-league postseason appearances, Motofumi Aoki takes over as the new head coach of the Tokyo Apache. FIVE ARROWS / bj-league

Former Takamatsu Five Arrows coach Motofumi Aoki is the new floor boss of the Tokyo Apache, the team announced on Wednesday.

Aoki, who turns 45 on Saturday, compiled an 88-48 regular-season record as the only coach in Takamatsu history. The Five Arrows did not renew his contract after the 2008-09 season, and he was replaced by ex-Rizing Fukuoka coach John Neumann.

Aoki guided Takamatsu to the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, including a trip to the bj-league title game against the Osaka Evessa in the team's inaugural season. As a result, he was named the 2006-07 bj-league Coach of the Year.

Now, Aoki inherits a club embroiled in chaos. A new management company, Exstar Group, took over last week after an offseason of uncertainty.

The team unveiled its new Web site, tokyo-apache.com/ , on Wednesday.

The team's first preseason game is on Monday against the host Saitama Broncos. But the Apache's player roster was listed as blank on their Web site, as of press time on Thursday afternoon.

Tokyo's new management company has not formally signed a franchise agreement contract with the league. And until it does so, a team spokesman said, it cannot formalize player contracts for the upcoming season.

The Apache plan to use returning players — five Japanese returnees (Shoji Nakanishi, Cohey Aoki, Jumpei Nakama, Tomoya Nakamura and Masashi Joho) were listed on the team's old Web site throughout the offseason — and practice squad players for exhibition contests until the paperwork is completed.

It remains to be seen if any of the Apache's 2008-09 foreign players — two-time league scoring champ John "Helicopter" Humphrey, Nick Davis, Julius Ashby, Tizzo Johnson, Dameion Baker or Kosaku Yada — will be offered contracts by the new management company.

After being beaten by the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the title game in May, the Apache's future plans appeared sketchy at best.

Bryant, who was believed to be the league's highest-paid coach, was asked to accept a 70 percent pay cut from his previous year's salary during discussions with the team earlier this month.

Bryant's tenure with the Apache was highlighted by three playoff seasons and back-to-back trips to the finals. Tokyo went 20-20 in the league's inaugural season (2005-06), followed by a 12-28 record the next season. The Apache bounced back and went 27-17 in 2007-08 and 33-19 last season. Overall, Bryant's teams went 92-84 in the regular season.

Bryant had been linked to a coaching offer from Italian club NSB Solsonica, formerly known as Nuova AMG Sebastiani Basket Rieti. But he visited with Apache officials last week in Tokyo, hoping to finalize a new deal. He flew back to the United States on Sunday.

In retrospect, it appears the Apache never truly expected — or wanted — Bryant to return to coach the team for the 2009-10 season. What's more, any cost-cutting measure seemed to be the team's No. 1 priority throughout the summer and for the coming season.

Dean Murray, an assistant coach for the Seoul-based LG Sakers of the Korean Basketball League, met with Apache team officials in Las Vegas in late July while attending NBA Summer League activities, he said during a Thursday interview in Kawasaki.

Murray said Tokyo offered him a contract to be the head coach in July, but he declined the offer.

New spark on horizon: According to a league source, point guard Rasheed Sparks, a two-time bj-league Slam Dunk champion and The Japan Times' 2006-07 bj-league MVP who played for the Five Arrows in each of the previous three seasons, is reportedly set to sign a contract with Tokyo, reuniting him with his former coach.

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