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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

SPORTS SCOPE

Japan the latest stop on Neumann's basketball odyssey


Johnny Neumann's trip through the world of basketball has been nothing short of an incredible journey.

Jack Gallagher

Starting out as a first-team high school All-American in Memphis, Tenn., back in the late 1960s, Neumann, who is now called John, embarked upon what has now been a 40-year run in the game.

Currently the coach of the bj-league's Rizing Fukuoka, he played with and against giants of the game like Julius Erving, Rick Barry and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and has since gone on to coach around the globe.

Now that he is working in Japan, he is making his current mission to raise the level of the game here for the long term.

"The future of this league is in the Japanese players and coaches," Neumann said in a Southern drawl after a recent game in Tokyo against the Apache. "That is where the investment has to be made. We have to nurture these guys.

"I think the outlook for this league is so great. I took a lot less money to come here and show people what I could do (as a coach). I hope that people here will gain a better understanding for the game and give the players the credit they deserve."

Neumann's club is a first-year expansion franchise in the 10-team circuit, which is presently in its third season. While acknowledging the potential of the league is unlimited, the 57-year-old admits there are many areas where improvement is needed.

"The league could use more foreign expertise in the way of marketing and personnel," he said. "It is a question of how big they want to get, and if they are willing to let these types of people in. It is up to the commissioner to decide.

"They need to go to hospitals and get underprivileged kids involved. They should have more fan giveaways. Buy one ticket, get one free. That type of thing.

"Every area you go to, the prices are different. There are so many promotions that would go over well."

Rizing Fukuoka has a record of 10-18 at this point in the season, but is still just two games out of playoff contention in the Western Conference. Neumann says that just like the rest of the league, he is facing his own challenges.

News photo
John Neumann, head coach of the Rizing Fukuoka, has a long career in international basketball and is optimistic about the future of the bj-league. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

"It is completely different here because in all of the organizations I have been in, I really had people with basketball knowledge around me," Neumann noted.

"I have very good people here in the front office, but as far as being basketball experts, there isn't really one in this organization."

Neumann, who led the NCAA in scoring in 1971 with a 40.1 points-per-game average as a sophomore at the University of Mississippi, has exactly the type of credentials that an emerging operation like the bj-league needs.

His resume could be mistaken for an Atlas. After a seven-year career in the ABA and NBA (1971-78), Neumann gained his first experience overseas with a stint in Italy, where he was voted MVP of the Euroleague Championship.

He then moved on to become a player-coach in Germany, and with the exception of a couple of briefs stint back in the United States working in a few minor leagues, has held coaching posts in Belgium, Greece, Cyprus, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and China.

Neumann, who once scored 63 points in a game against Louisiana State University, said getting a job in Japan had been a longtime goal.

"I have always wanted to work here," he said, "especially after coaching with Lebanon in the world championships in 2002. It is so hard to get in here. You can do it if you have contacts."

The first player ever to be named a "hardship" case for financial reasons by the ABA (when he signed with his hometown Memphis Pros), following a heart attack suffered by his father while he was still a collegian, Neumann is hoping to have an extended stay here.

"I am 57 and hope to coach until I am 60 or 65, then have a young Japanese coach come up and take my place and be a consultant with him," he said.

"I like Japan. I like the people and the opportunity here."

When asked if the bj-league could compare to the old ABA in terms of organization at this still-early stage, Neu- mann shook his head.

News photo
John Neumann, who led the NCAA in scoring with a 40.1 points-per-game average in 1971, talks to his Rizing Fukuoka players during a timeout.

"There is no comparison between this league and the old ABA. The bj-league is like a newborn baby. The old ABA was so professional.

"A player like (Hall of Famer) Rick Barry, who jumped from the NBA to the ABA, shows you that it wasn't just all about money."

Neumann, who admits he is deeply religious, has learned from his experiences as a player — when he was sometimes considered selfish — and is trying to impart that wisdom on the current generation.

"I was a bit of a jerk when I was a player, but I am a better coach because of the experience. I try to help these kids learn from what I did.

"I left (guard) Michael Gardener at home on this trip for disciplinary reasons," said Neumann, after a 98-94 overtime loss to the Apache on Jan. 27. "We come into Tokyo here and we played two great games."

The 200-cm Neumann, who played both guard and forward, has some specific thoughts about how the bj-league can help Japanese players improve.

"They need to make it a more international league," he said. "They should put a restriction on never having more than three foreigners (per team) on the court at one time. Not right now, but maybe in a few years."

The no-nonsense Tennessean clearly has little time for the current shenanigans of the Japan Basketball Association, which backs the rival Japan Basketball League and controls the player selection for the national team, and has made a point of going out of its way to make life difficult for the bj-league.

"You have to improve these young kids if you want to have an 80-game season like the commissioner wants," Neumann says. "Also, this league has to work with the JBL. There are players in this league who are good enough to play on the Japan national team, but because they play in the bj-league, they aren't going to get a shot.

"How would it have been if they had said, 'Julius (Erving), you can't play in the NBA because you were originally from the ABA?' Or if George Gervin (one of the leading scorers in the ABA) had not been allowed in?

"But the leagues merged. They came together and the stars went over (to the NBA). Now, there is nothing like the NBA."

With a hint of exasperation in his voice, Neumann added: "I just wish the national team would get their heads out of their asses, so we could play some international basketball the right way, because I don't know who is putting together these teams."

Clearly not one to sugarcoat things, Neumann had an interesting response when asked who the best player he had played with or against was.

"I think that one guy who everybody forgets about, and I played with him at Indiana (Pacers), was (forward) George McGinnis," he said. "I think he was as good as Julius.

"George was quick and could shoot 3s. He played like a guard. A lot of people forget about him.

"Julius and George and I all had the same agent (Irwin Weiner). I thought one of the biggest mistakes Irwin ever made was putting George and Julius on the same team (the Philadelphia 76ers) after the merger."

Of the current crop of NBA players, Neumann admires the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James.

"LeBron is one of the greatest ever to play the game," Neumann said. "He's like Julius was and Michael (Jordan)."

Neumann said that besides his father, Hall of Fame coach Hubie Brown, who he played for with the ABA's Kentucky Colonels, had the most influence on his career.

"Hubie might have been the best coach I ever played for, technically," he revealed. "A lot of stuff that we do and the sets that I run are from him."

Despite being on what has seemed like a perpetual road trip, the former college All-American has never forgotten where it all started for him.

"I haven't been back to the States for many years and I miss it," said Neumann. "I look forward to going back because I am proud to be an American and I would like to go back and see my family."



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