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Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009

BJ-LEAGUE

Johnson has work cut out for him in trying to turn around hapless Grouses


Staff writer

There have been few highlights for the Toyama Grouses during their brief existence as a pro basketball team.

News photo
New hire: Charles Johnson wants to lead the Toyama Grouses to their first winning season in 2009-10. TOYAMA GROUSES / bj-league

Entering their fourth season in the bj-league, the Grouses are trying to shed the label of "perennial loser."

It won't be easy.

As they say, winning is contagious. The same could be said for losing, which has been the Grouses' forte since Day One, including an 11-41 record last season. Overall, the franchise has 31 wins and 105 losses in the books.

New coach Charles Johnson will have his hands full trying to turn around the franchise.

For starters, defense will be the team's primary building block for success.

"I think one of our biggest strengths is going to be our team defense," Johnson said by telephone from Toyama, "and getting out on the (fast) break we are going to be really strong.

"Really, I am trying to push that on them and have an up-tempo game and play good team defense."

The Grouses play host to the Tokyo Apache (1-3) in their season opener on Saturday.

Oddly enough, due to an uneven schedule — there are 13 teams now — the Grouses' first game will be the 19th game played in the league this season.

Johnson served as the Saitama Broncos' original coach during the bj-league's inaugural 2005-06 season. It was a short stint, with the undermanned team going 2-15 to start the season. Looking back on his first head coaching position, he summed it up by saying, "You can't get it (that experience) unless you do it. . . . There were a lot of mishaps my first year."

Due to an Achilles injury to former NBA player David Benoit, the current Hannaryz coach and former Broncos floor boss, early in 2005, Johnson left the bench and became a full-time player/assistant coach for the remainder of the season, as the team needed an extra big body on the frontline. He returned to his home state of Texas after the Broncos' first season and had been working in scholastic athletics, primarily personal training and basketball clinics, before returning to the bj-league this summer.

Now, Johnson, a Texas Tech product who turns 48 in December, is ready to spend all his time and energy on the Grouses, who used three head coaches — Masato Fukushima, Hirokazu Nema and Takatoshi Ishibashi — last season.

"It's a long season, a lot of games, so you really have to depend on all the players that you have," he said.

The Grouses did not re-sign high-scoring forward Jerod Ward (25.0 points per game in 29 games) during the offseason. The team also lost solid shooting guard Masayuki Kabaya, who joined the JBL's Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Dolphins after unloading center Babacar Camara and forward Rodney Webb midway through the 2008-09 season to the Takamatsu Five Arrows and Sendai 89ers, respectively.

New standouts must emerge for the Grouses. Johnson will count on newcomer Brandon Thomas, who sees time at both backcourt positions and played collegiate ball at Texas State, as well as forward Jason Underwood, who went to Centenary College in Louisiana, and veteran small forward Kirby Lemons, who attended Louisiana Monroe and played for the Broncos during the team's JBL days.

Johnson's rotation also will include guards Kenya Tomori, Takeshi Mito, Takahiro Yoshimura, Wataru Kumagai and guard/forward Makoto Kato.

On Thursday, the team announced the signing of former Oklahoma City College forward Jason Arbet, a 24-year-old, 205-cm performer who played in Mexico last season.

"We definitely need more size," Johnson admitted, adding the team plans to add another big man to the mix in the coming days.

From what he's witnessed in the preseason, the Grouses coach said he expects big contributions from Kato and Mito and steady production from ex-Ryukyu Golden King Tomori, whose playing time dwindled last season after he was on the court for 694 minutes in 2007-08.

Johnson has no illusions that his team will be an unstoppable force. He has a more basic goal: to qualify for the playoffs.

"They still have a lot of work to do at this time," he said, speaking in general terms about his players. "They are still young guys.

"You really don't start to understand basketball until your late 20s, and as you get older, you start to understand how to do this or that."

* * * * *

During Johnson's colorful career in basketball, he played against future legends Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon in college and played alongside Pistol Pete Maravich during Meadowlark Lemon's Shooting Stars travel squad's trips to Louisiana in 1986-87.

Johnson remembered those days as his participation in "show basketball, like the (Harlem) Globetrotters."

"There were several original teams doing the same things . . . and I was mostly the guy who was doing the big dunks. I was that type of guy for them," said Johnson, who later spent a few seasons playing for a team in Morelia, Mexico.

When he speaks about his past days as a player, Johnson doesn't do so in a boastful manner. Instead, he carefully chooses examples that will help his team make improvements.

"I really try to speak of other people," he said. "My experience, an old-school situation, is just straight heart . . . you just played with a lot of heart back then. It's a different era now, I think."

So when he uses the NBA as a coaching tool now, he often mentions All-Stars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as his usual examples.

"They know these guys by watching the NBA playoffs," Johnson said, acknowledging who the current role models are.

So what can the Grouses learn from James, Bryant, et al?

"There's no time for slacking off," the coach concluded. "Every day you have got to do something to improve your game."



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