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Friday, June 3, 2011

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Abdul-Rauf opines on Aono's dismissal


Staff writer

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf has been in this business long enough to know that coaches face an unenviable task every time they step onto the court. In other words, they can't please everyone.

Since playing his first NBA game in 1990, the current Kyoto Hannaryz standout has seen coaches thrive, struggle and get burned out by the high-pressure demands of the job. So it's no surprise that Abdul-Rauf had a lot to say about Kazuto Aono's dismissal from the Hannaryz earlier this week after the team's 28-20 season which concluded with their first playoff appearance.

Assistant coach Daniel Stafford, who's expected to take part in bj-league player tryouts this month, was also not retained. Stafford turns 25 on Sunday.

"It's a very tough business with a huge amount of fair and unfair expectations," Abdul-Rauf told The Japan Times. "It's a situation I'm sure coach Aono understood. My heart goes out to him and coach Daniel. They were young but I believe they put a lot of their heart and soul into trying to make this a winning team. Unfortunately, it didn't meet the organization's expectations and, as I'm sure, their — and our — own. We all expected to do much better than we did this year.

"It was a disappointment for all of us."

Aono, a Nagano Prefecture native widely expected to be a finalist for the expansion Shinshu Brave Warriors, developed a solid rapport with Abdul-Rauf over the past two seasons, first as an assistant under ex-Kyoto coach David Benoit, who was Aono's teammate and then held the sideline supervisor title with Aono as his assistant for the Saitama Broncos before they joined the Kansai club together.

Looking back on Aono's only full season in charge at Kyoto — he took over last April after Benoit's forced departure — Abdul-Rauf commended his coach for his organizational skills.

"His practices were organized," Abdul-Rauf said. "We knew what to expect, also his scouting the opponents and what their weaknesses and strengths were along with the plays they ran the most were pretty precise."

Naturally, the 35-year-old Aono has room for growth in his chosen profession.

"As far as his weaknesses are concerned — and him and I discussed this on occasion — one I believe was his inability early on to define roles for guys, what he demanded and expected from them, and having them buy into those roles," Abdul-Rauf said.

"It's critical in any business you're trying to make successful."

He added: "Guys have to know what's expected from them individually as well as collectively. And they have to understand that there are consequences for not living up to that potential that can not only make them better but the team as a whole.

"And the roles should fit into their personalities as a player. In other words, roles have to be well thought of after an honest assessment has been made concerning the player's skill level. Defining roles should not be interpreted as confining one's role. When that happens, it's difficult to have veteran players especially buying into accepting that definition of who you say they are."

To a man, identity issues plagued the Hannaryz this season.

Abdul-Rauf cited a clear-cut example of this. Here's his explanation:

"It's not easy, but I believe it has to be done. And when guys sacrifice their strengths for the team (that leads to greater success). Example: A scorer is asked to become more of a playmaker. . . . Let it be known in public that it's appreciated, because athletes are people and people have egos, and you have to learn how to pacify those egos in a way that truly benefit all, including themselves.

"In saying all of that, there were numerous times during the season the guys were miserable with that setup. But things happen."

Kyoto, under Aono's leadership, however, made progress as the season marched on, Abdul-Rauf said.

"Despite all of that, it got better toward the end and I believe we started to understand one another more and because of that we were playing better basketball," he noted.

Some Kansai-based sources consider ex-Osaka Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi, whose team captured titles in each of the league's first three season, a frontrunner for the Hannaryz's coaching vacancy. He's currently the Ashiya University coach. Though other sources don't expect him to leave the college ranks anytime soon.

Abdul-Rauf, who has long expressed his desire to be a head coach in the future, said he wouldn't rule out telling management he'd like to be a player-coach for the 2011-12 season.

"But I do still have a strong desire to play," said Abdul-Rauf, whose Louisiana State career overlapped with Shaquille O'Neal's in 1989-90.

Recipe for disaster: Impatience, a code word for incompetence, truly defines the way many — and some would argue most — bj-league teams operate. The coaching carousel is perhaps the best example of this.

A revolving door of head coaches and assistants never gives them the proper opportunity to grow or prove they have what it takes to lead teams, teach individual skills and contend for championships.

As one player who has been in the bj-league since 2005 said in an interview this week, "This coaching carousel is ridiculous. All these teams are going with young and inexperienced (coaches) to save money. They don't want to pay coaches anymore."

Furthermore, one league insider offered an in-depth analysis of the current coaching situation, ripping the league's team executives for having no visible plan in place to give assistants a chance to grow, succeed and become the next generation of bench bosses.

His analysis came after the following question was submitted via email:

Is there a current Japanese assistant on any of the teams who appears to be a hot coach or a rising star in the coaching business in this league?

"Tough to answer, because there aren't that many," the well-connected source said. "Fujitaka Hiraoka at Niigata has been mentioned the most often, but it's really hard to become the head coach of a team where you were the assistant for a long time. Much better to go to a new team. He certainly deserves a shot somewhere after all the time he's put in.

"This league has been brutal towards most of the assistants who do move up. (Ex-Shiga coach Takatoshi Ishibashi) Big Bashi was let go in the middle of this season — he knew he wasn't quite ready. ... But he should have been successful, only teams don't create an environment for young coaches to grow and learn on the job. Same with Aono at Kyoto. He may not have been ready, but he improved as the season went on, making good adjustments between Saturday and Sunday on many occasions. A shame he doesn't get one more year.

"I really like Haruyuki Ishibashi (Big Bashi's brother), who was just released from Shiga. He may try to play again next season, but I really liked him as a player-coach. He could be a really good coach, though, whenever he decides to stop playing."

While on the coaching subject, the league insider was asked to identify several other Japanese players who could be a big part of the league's next generation of mentors.

"(Longtime Saitama Broncos and current Akita Northern Happinets forward Kazuhiro) Shoji is another guy who could make a really good coach," the source said without hesitation. "He's shown flashes at times in how he gives advice to teammates and at clinics. He should retire, sooner than later, and might be what Saitama needs since he's from there.

"Many of the guards in the league, (Ryukyu's Tsubasa) Yonamine, (Miyazaki's Taishiro) Shimizu, (Oita's) Yukinori Suzuki seem to have what it takes — that is, if they are interested in becoming coaches. (Oita) big man Taketo Aoki impresses me as another who has a good feel for the game, and the people skills to coach both Japanese and American players."

One-year stints are common in this league for head coaches. In fact, they've become the norm for many.

That said, rookie boss Koto Toyama of the Miyazaki Shining Suns earned some praise from the hoop insider.

He said, "Toyama did a pretty good job at Miyazaki, in a real tough situation. But he always seemed to have the presence and personality required when he was at Hamamatsu. We'll see how they do in year two."

Other guys in their late 20s or early 30s, the starting age for many new coaches in this league, have started to make their mark, making mistakes but getting that priceless experience that will help them down the road.

"(Shiga boss Hirokazu Nema is another one that seemed like he just needed a little more experience before becoming a head coach," the source said candidly. "These stupid teams rush a guy into the HC position before he's ready, and then they fire him before he has a chance to learn and grow into the job. I would say Nema, Big Bashi and Aono all would have been fine if they had been allowed to stay and grow with their team like (Honoo) Hamaguchi at Sendai, whose first two seasons at Sendai were nothing special, and who's still never won a championship or anything."

Player transactions: Osaka Evessa point guard Kenny Satterfield and center Tseng Wen-ting, who helped the team reach the Final Four for a sixth straight season, have had their contracts expire, the Western Conference squad formally announced Wednesday.

Both players were productive performers in the season's stretch run and could figure in the team's plans for 2011-12, but the Broncos would have the first opportunity to offer Satterfield a contract, as he joined Osaka on a rental player deal after Saitama's season ended following the March 11 earthquake.

In other team moves, a trio of Broncos have had their contracts end: forward Kazuya "J." Hatano and guards Haruhito Shishito and Yasuaki Arai.

Hatano, the Brazilian-born, three-time title winner with the Evessa, spent two seasons with the Broncos. Some reports have suggested he'll ply his trade in the rival JBL next season.

In 31 games this season, Hatano averaged 9.6 points for Bob Nash's club and continued his role as the top Japanese rebounder in the game, a label he's earned since the league's inception in 2005.

Hatano, 29, would be a welcome addition to any of the bj-league's other 19 teams. His energy, hustle and ability to impact the game is visible in a number of ways.

Shishito, who previously played for the Toyama Grouses, averaged 1.8 points playing about 8 minutes a game, while Arai played sparingly.

Albirex update: Former Takamatsu Five Arrows and Nigata Albirex BB sharpshooter Matt Garrision has spoken to the Niigata front office about the team's coaching vacancy, though it appears ex-coach Masaya Hirose may have some indirect influence on the team's next hire.

Or as one source fully immersed in the inner workings of the league said on Thursday morning, "It's hard to tell what's really going on in bj-world, but heard from one person that Hirose retired, and wanted (current Toyama Grouses coach Kazuaki) Shimoji to take his place, but Shimoji not sure he wanted to go to Niigata so soon, but also not sure he wants to continue at Toyama, so the normal uncertainty at both places."

Shimoji left the Albirex after the 2009-10 season and took over as the Grouses bench boss after Kohei Eto was fired following the team's dreadful 8-18 start.

The Grouses finished the season with a 13-31 record, including 5-13 under Shimoji.

Is Shimoji the right coach to take the Albirex to the next level or lead the Grouses, who have had six consecutive losing seasons, out of the deep, dark wilderness of mediocrity?

Stay tuned.

Golden Kings update: Ryukyu Golden Kings assistant coach Keith Richardson told The Japan Times on Sunday that the team will retain its coaching staff for next season, dismissing speculation that coach Dai Oketani and his staff would be replaced after falling short of its goal to win a championship in 2010-11.

Instead, Oketani will be back on the bench for a fourth season in Okinawa. In fact, he could be the longest-tenured coach in the league with the same team when the league's seventh season tips off. If Honoo Hamaguchi and the Sendai 89ers decide to reach terms on a new contract for 2011-12, then he'll remain at the top of that list.

Swift's options: Tokyo Apache coach Bob Hill believes center Robert Swift could be back in the NBA next fall after a two-year absence.

"He has two teams that have shown sincere interest in him," Hill said in a Thursday interview, referring to the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics, "so I think if he stays in shape and does all the right things he will be back in the NBA. If not he could be back in Japan."

Hill said he doesn't expect Swift to return to the NBA Development League.

"My best bet is he'll be back in the NBA," the coach predicted.

Quotable: "He is the only 7-foot (213-cm) player in the history of the league that plays on the perimeter. He is virtually impossible to stop because of his footwork and touch. His shooting touch is extra special .... look at his free-throw percentage. So, yes I would agree he is the most versatile scoring 7-footer in the history of the league! The others are low post players," Hill said, responding to a statement by ex-NBA standout Eddie Johnson that Dallas Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki is the most versatile scoring big man in NBA history.

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp



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