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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012

Iwate coach Vlaikidis steps down

Staff writer

Family comes first. That's the message Vlasios Vlaikidis conveyed to the Iwate Big Bulls during a team meeting on Wednesday.

And so the first coach in the bj-league expansion team's brief history has decided to relinquish his coaching duties and return to his native Greece, near Thessaloniki, to be with his ailing father, who has been in and out of the hospital in recent weeks.

Shinji Tomiyama, Vlaikidis' 31-year-old assistant, was promoted to acting head coach, Iwate announced Wednesday evening.

"This is something I had to do," the 46-year-old Vlaikidis said by phone from Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, on Wednesday night.

Tomiyama served as an assistant coach for the IBL's Nippon Tornadoes in 2009, and worked under then-head coach Motofumi Aoki for the bj-league's Tokyo Apache in 2009-10. Last season, he served as a coach at the bj-league academy. A Tokyo native, Tomiyama attended Rikkyo University.

Tomiyama now steps into the spotlight to lead a young team.

"Of course, he's nervous," Vlaikidis said of Tomiyama. "This is normal before some person's first games (in charge). ... He'll feel much better when the second half of the season starts.

"As this is his first time as a head coach, he'll be under big stress for sure. But I hope he will pass this as soon as possible."

Iwate became the second bj-league team to make a coaching change this season. The struggling Saitama Broncos fired Dean Murray on Nov. 24 and named Natalie Nakase, who had been his assistant, the new head coach.

Big Bulls team president Masayuki Kido issued a statement saying he was "very sorry the head coach has resigned in the middle of the season," and he urged the team's fans to continue supporting the team as the season continues. He added that he was pleased with the improvement the team has shown since December.

The Big Bulls (7-19) travel to face the two-time defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (14-10) this weekend.

Vlaikidis plans to depart Iwate Prefecture on Friday to return to Greece. In a team meeting Wednesday, he informed players, team management and Tomiyama about what he described as a heart-wrenching decision. He then said goodbye to each of the players, one at a time.

"I appreciated people's support very much," he said as emotions overtook his normal calm demeanor on the phone. "I had a very good time here. I'm very satisfied with everything here. I love Japan very much, and Morioka and the people here on the team very much..."

Vlaikidis has not indicated what his coaching plans are for the future, but he said he's willing and able to give any advice or strategy tips to the Big Bulls and Tomiyama if he's asked to do so.

"I'll do my best to help the team if I can," said Vlaikidis, a former assistant under current Shimane Susanoo Magic coach Zeljko Pavlicevic at Panathinaikos Athens in the early 1990s.

The Big Bulls were built from scratch. Two-time All-Star Makoto Sawaguchi, 20, was the lone player on the season-opening roster with bj-league experience last season. And Sawaguchi, a Morioka native who's scoring 10.3 points per game, was the league's youngest player last season as a member of the Akita Northern Happinets. So it wasn't like he was a grizzled veteran in this league, a la Akita's Makoto Hasegawa.

Iwate was 1-13 to start the season, but is 6-6 since then. The team made noticeable improvements despite a rough start that Vlaikidis said he expected the team to have due to its newness, and won four straight in December and went 6-4 in the month.

"Step by step, we find our way," were the words he used to describe the process. "Really, the team was moving in a very good direction."

"Also, I'm very satisfied with our Japanese guys," he added, speaking of increased contributions from guard Atsushi Nogami in recent weeks, as well as the play of Yoshiaki Yamamoto, Tasuku Namizato, Sawaguchi and Hayato Kantake.

Forward Gordon Klaiber, a well-liked veteran, added needed scoring punch from the perimeter and toughness when he joined the team in December. His personality was a good fit for the team, according to Vlaikidis.

"He knows a lot of players in the bj-league and has experience in this league," the coach said of the ex-Saitama Broncos forward.

Now, "the team is on the right path," he said.

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