By Ed Odeven
(Nov. 22, 2013) — Herb Brown’s basketball coaching career spans six decades. Indeed, he knows a thing or two about what it takes to build a program for long-term success.
Since he began his coaching career in 1960 as a men’s college assistant at C.W. Post in Long Island, New York, Brown has seen numerous examples of success and failure in the sport.
In his latest job as adviser coach, a six-month assignment, for the Japan women’s national team, the 77-year-old Brown recognizes the squad, coming off a first-place finish at the 25th FIBA Asia Championship for Women in Bangkok earlier this month, has planted the seeds for success.
Call it a huge, important step for Japan coach Tomohide Utsumi’s club, which collected the winner’s trophy for the first time since the 1970 continental tournament.
“Japan’s first Asian Championship since 1970 was really icing on the cake and a fitting tribute to the 12 women, six of whom were new to the national team, were completely and totally dedicated to bringing the gold medal back to Japan from the first day of practice to the final whistle in Bangkok,” Brown said in a recent interview. “The ladies put their individual egos aside and each and everyday during our training and practice were focused on improving individually and helping each of their teammates get better.
“I can honestly say that their attitude and dedication never wavered.”
Brown, whose coaching career has included numerous stops as an NBA assistant coach and as Detroit Pistons bench boss along with abundant international gigs, including in Puerto Rico, Israel, Spain and Pakistan, believes the Japan women’s total commitment to work paved the way for their success.
“So many of our girls were learning, not only how to compete with new teammates on a international level but learning how to play new positions and adjust to a new system and physical style of play,” Brown said. “The coaches placed a great deal of emphasis on half-court, full-court and transition defense as well as rebounding and boxing out taller opponents. This was an everyday focus as was the emphasis placed on our strength and physical conditioning.
“Each and every girl pushed, prodded, helped and supported one another. In Bangkok, it was obvious we were the best-conditioned team in the competition.”
What was the experience like for the energetic New York native?
He described it as a joyful experience on numerous occasions to me. And he praised the players for their desire to improve.
“I was pleasantly surprised not by the women’s ability to run, shoot, pass and dribble but by their willingness to learn and work on their weaknesses as well as their strengths,” Brown said. “They (were) always in the gym working on their games, not only during practice but they were all in the gym before breakfast and following dinner working on improving their individual games.”
The significance of that extra work was not lost on Brown, who assisted his younger brother Larry, the Hall of Fame coach, to lead the Detroit Pistons to an NBA Finals triumph in 2004.
“Winning the title qualified Japan for next year’s Women’s World Championship in Turkey,” noted Brown, “and also could not have been accomplished without the exceptional and dedicated work and contributions of the team’s coaching, training, administrative and support staffs and the backing and leadership provided by the Japanese Basketball Association.”
Which doesn’t mean the title-winning achievement came without pressure.
Brown said, “There was a great deal of pressure on the team to be successful. They had missed out on qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in London, were constantly reminded of the men’s national team finishing ninth in Asia (this year and the goal of qualifying for the Olympics in Rio in 2016, not to mention the added pressure of defending Japan’s honor at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.”
He added: “If all goes as planned the 12 players finally named to the 2020 Japanese women’s Olympic team will include some of this year’s squad. They have raised the bar and established a standard for the future.
“From here on, every year there will be increased competition from a wider and more talented group of players trying out for the 12 coveted positions on an team with a legitimate chance for an Olympic medal in Tokyo.”
He described it as “the culmination of a seven-year quest for excellence,” before adding, “I believe the team’s success is only the beginning. These young ladies have established the beginning of Japan’s march to prominence in women’s basketball.”
It should come as no surprise that the big steps taken by the Japan national team this year involved an across-the-board ability to master the little things.
Brown offered this succinct explanation: “(We) always try to make the extra pass to move the defense and prepare your team for any eventuality so there are no surprises. The latter requires a great deal of time and work on special situations.”
* * *
Life in the NBA is a nonstop, hectic pace, including the 82-game regular season. Brown spent decades on the move, so he’s quite familiar with the demands of travel. Working with Utsumi to prepare the squad for the FIBA Asia tournament, travel was a big part of that demanding preparation.
“Our journey which began in Tokyo at the National Training Center in May that took us to Phoenix, Slovakia, Lithuania, Sendai, Tokyo, China and Thailand to play games against strong national teams were great preparation for the future,” Brown stated. “There is renewed interest in women’s basketball and our goals for the next seven years…”
A commitment to excellence, described in different ways, was a recurring them in Brown’s analysis of the past six months for the Japan women’s national team players.
“The professionalism and desire to learn and get better was unbelievable,” he said. “We never had to push or try to motivate the players. Women always want to listen and do things right. Many men think they know everything and therefore at times resist coaching or learning a new way to do things. Our ladies never wavered in their trying to do the right thing and their desire to improve their games.”
That made the coaching experience a richly rewarding one for Brown, who has said he never wants to retire as a basketball never, never wants to quit teaching the finer points of the game he loves.
“Camaraderie and collective leadership and togetherness was exceptional,” Brown said, reflecting on the title-winning squad.
“Everyone pulled for and cheered for one another. Competition in practice brought out the best in each other. They wanted to get better each day and consequently make each other better.”
Team Japan took a page out of legendary former University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith’s quotable quotes for inspiration and focus. These included:
In addition to Smith’s timeless words of wisdom, Japan embraced the following objectives as central themes of importance:
*Run the floor
Together, those 10 objectives provided vital to the team’s preparation for the FIBA Asia tournament and its performance in the Thai capital.
“Coaches at the games marveled at how hard our team played, their intensity, focus and discipline and desire to win,” Brown said. “Many commented on how complete and positive we were and intent upon winning. Whenever we needed a basket or 3-point shot, (we) would get one. … We always had someone step up to make sure we got a defensive stop or key rebound. Everything about this team was channeled towards helping and having each other’s back…”
During Japan’s 5-0 run to the title, including a 65-43 triumph over South Korea in the championship finale, backups and starters all had their shining moments in the spotlight. Short, snappy nicknames helped Brown keep track of the players.
“It would be very easy to single out Taku (power forward Ramu Tokashiki), Ryu (point guard Asami Yoshida) and Mei (center Yuka Mamiya) for their accomplishments of being selected to the all-tournament team in Bangkok, but their recognition was a direct result of the sacrifice, dedication and competition provided by the other nine girls on the team,” Brown said.
“Our competitive and physical practices brought out the best in each of our girls. Wan (center Asako Oh), Kira (small forward Kana Motoyama), Lon (small forward Chika Sakuragi) and Earth (power forward Yuki Miyazawa) battled our inside players everyday and Yui (point guard Emi Kudeken), Mui (shooting guard Kumiko Oba) and Shell (shooting guard Arisa Fujiwara), Michi (shooting guard Michiko Miyamoto) and Shin (point guard Yuko Oga) continually pushed each other.
“I firmly believe that each of our players were All-Stars. Whenever the team needed a lift, everyone was ready.”
* * *
The last word: “There are similarities between coaching men and women, but women seem much more open to constructive criticism and doing the right thing than their male counterparts.” – Herb Brown