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Saturday, Aug. 18, 2007

HOOP SCOOP

JBA needs to give Suzuki more time to turn national team around


Continuity helps breed success. Without it, a sports team rarely finds the necessary components — leadership, in-game chemistry and mastering the fundamentals — to become an elite team.

Ed Odeven

The Japan Basketball Association's movers and shakers ought to remember that when they decide the fate of Kimikazu Suzuki, the head coach of the men's national team.

In the aftermath of Japan's eighth-place finish in the 2007 FIBA Asian Championship, a 16-nation tournament, which ended on Aug. 5 in Tokushima, there's plenty of speculation that Suzuki's days are numbered as the national coach.

What a joke.

Suzuki has had less than a year to put his stamp on the national team since taking over as head coach last September. (JBA declined to renew Zeljko Pavlicevic's contract, a four-year deal, after the 2006 FIBA World Championship.)

Suzuki has been a successful coach for the JBL's Aisin Sea Horses (the team has won two Super League titles in the past decade with him at the helm), but he hasn't produced miracles yet with the national team.

Some people can't accept this.

In this era of instant information, they expect instant success for their sports teams.

People blame Suzuki for the team's failure to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And sure, part of the blame is his, but it takes times to plant the seeds of success for a sports team.

Here's a classic example: The Detroit Tigers hired Sparky Anderson in 1979. His now-famous remark was that it would take a five-year plan to turn the lousy team into a winner. He was right on target. The Motown team cruised to the 1984 American League pennant and defeated the San Diego Padres in the World Series.

Suzuki's opening act as national team coach was in December. He led Japan to a sixth-place finish in the Asian Games, including a 3-1 record in Group B play, good for second behind continental power China in Doha.

Not great, but far from awful.

Now fast forward to late July. Japan opened the FIBA Asian Championship on July 28 with a 109-66 win over the United Arab Emirates, a game in which shooting guard Takehiko Orimo scored a team-best 17 points.

A day later, Japan upset Lebanon 77-67, getting 15 points from Kosuke Takeuchi and making 27 of 54 shots from the field.

Lebanon, by the way, placed second in the tournament after dropping the title contest to Iran.

On July 30, Japan routed Kuwait 101-48. Joji Takeuchi had a superb all-around game (22 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, team-high numbers in all three categories).

Three games, three wins, and then it was time for the quarterfinals. Japan trailed 26-15 after one quarter against Kazakhstan on July 31, but put up a valiant fight in the final three periods, dropping a 93-85 game to a good team (the Kazakhs placed fourth in the tournament). NBA teams never play four games in four days. But all 16 teams in this tournament did, and that takes an incredible physical toll on their bodies.

For Japan, the fifth game in five days took place on Aug. 1 against South Korea. Suzuki's team lost 93-83 to its rival.

J.R. Sakuragi, the ex-NBA forward with the surname Henderson who earned his Japanese citizenship recently, had his breakout game on the national team, with a double-double (17 points, 17 rebounds). South Korea finished third in the tourney.

On Aug. 2, Japan edged Jordan 71-68. Sakuragi repeated his solid scoring total from the previous game, helping Japan hold off the tourney's eventual fifth-place finisher.

A quick recap: In a span of three days, Japan faced the tournament's fourth-, third- and fifth-place teams in a row.

Ouch.

That's tough. But it won once. Its two losses were by a combined 18 points. That's nothing to be embarrassed about.

Japan failed to end the tourney on a high note, though, losing back-to-back games to Taiwan (85-80 on Aug. 4) and Qatar (86-82 the next day).

At press time, the Takeuchi twins are key players on Japan's World University Games squad, which has had a strong run this year. Serbia beat Japan, coached by Kenji Hasegawa, 76-62 in the semifinals on Thursday in Bangkok.

Clearly, Hasegawa's team has reaped the benefits of Pavlicevic's youth movement and noted teaching skills from previous years, which included naming Joji and Kosuke Takeuchi, Ryota Sakurai and Takuya Kawamura (more on him in a moment) to Japan's World Championship squad.

JBA in fact, should encourage and foster stronger collaboration between Suzuki and Hasegawa, ensuring that national team-caliber players are getting intense competition year-round.

Involving bj-league players in this process, as this writer and Tokyo Apache coach Joe Bryant have fervently supported, would be a step in the right direction, too.

Japan was 0-3 in group play at the 2005 World University Games and placed 16th overall in the 30-nation tournament. Hasegawa was not the coach then; Yasuaki Ikeuchi had the job.

Japan's success in Bangkok this summer is a sign of progress.

But a negative, we-expect-to-fail mind-set is the norm among the JBA top brass.

Or as Suzuki stated before the Asian Championship, "I don't know why people always talk about negatives rather than positives, especially in this country. I don't understand why people do not simply root for us, putting all those things aside."

However, it's difficult to discard the negative vibes when recent history underscores a colossal failure, the FIBA World Championship.

Japan reportedly lost ¥1.3 billion in last year's World Championship.

This budgetary disaster has affected the way Team Japan prepared for this summer's Asian Championship. As a result, the team didn't get enough games under its belt against top-level competition.

Exhibit A: Suzuki's team played several games in Lithuania, the majority of which were against that nation's Under-23 team.

Why couldn't JBA arrange to have games against Lithuania's "A" team, which would've given Team Japan more contests against the best possible competition there? Limited finances must've been a factor.

Japan will not play in the 2008 Olympics, but Suzuki can lay the foundation for the future with the young players he has, especially Kawamura.

The 21-year-old demonstrated that his time on Japan's FIBA World Championship squad last summer was a valuable learning experience. The shooting guard, who served admirably as an understudy to Orimo, led Japan with 14.1 points per game in the team's eight games in Tokushima. What's more, he drained 31 of 65 3-pointers.

He is the heir apparent to Orimo, who has retired from the national team.

Sakurai, meanwhile, proved his star potential in the South Korea game, scoring six quick fourth-quarter points and finishing with 12 in a productive 13-minute outing.

In short, Suzuki deserves a shot to build a successful national program. After all, he did lead Japan to the aforementioned upset over Lebanon, the 2005 FIBA Asian Championship runnerup.

And the team needs time to grow into an Olympic-caliber team under Suzuki's leadership. Give him a few more years to accomplish this goal.

(And, if JBA wants to avoid becoming a laughingstock for the foreseeable future, it needs to put capable, visionary leadership at the top of the national organization, embrace the bj-league as a respectable pro circuit and truly work to unify the sport on the national level.)

Otherwise it's back to square one. And another coach will again have the difficult task of starting the process all over again.

That wouldn't be progress. That would be a bad decision.



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