By Ed Odeven
Historically, the Japan men’s national basketball team has had limited opportunities to compete on the global stage.
For example, the team qualified for the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics and the 1998 FIBA World Championship, which was held in Athens. But the upcoming FIBA World Cup (its newer name), which starts on Saturday in China, marks the next time Japan qualified for one of the two premier global competitions. (As the host nation, Japan received an automatic spot in the 24-nation 2006 FIBA World Championship.)
This summer’s extravaganza is a 32-team field, with Japan returning to the fold after failing to qualify for the 2010 and 2014 editions, and Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey remembers vividly Japan’s last involvement in the FIBA World Championship. He served as an assistant coach alongside Japan bench boss Mototaka Kohama, the late godfather of Japanese basketball, in ’98. It was an experience that gives Casey a unique perspective about a past generation of Japanese players and the current squad that has revitalized the national program and reinvigorated fan interest throughout the archipelago.
Casey returned to Japan for the Akatsuki Five’s exhibition game against New Zealand on Aug. 12 at Chiba Port Arena and saw Washington Wizards rookie forward Rui Hachimura pour in a game-high 35 points in Japan’s victory. Days later, he spoke to The Japan Times by phone from his offseason home in Seattle about global hoops and Japan’s improved squad.
By playing pre-tournament games in August against New Zealand (twice), Argentina, Germany and Tunisia in Japan, Casey believes the Akatsuki Five have made good preparations for the World Cup.
“Playing some really, really tough competition will help them a lot,” the 2018 NBA Coach of the Year said before adding, “even if they lose it’s not a bad thing.”
In 1998, Kohama’s squad went 0-3 against Group B foes Russia (83-58 loss), Puerto Rico (78-57) and eventual champion Yugoslavia (99-54), then topped Senegal (60-50) and fell to Nigeria (70-60) in the 13th-place playoff game. Before this marquee event in Greece, the Japan men hadn’t competed at worlds since 1967.
What stood out about Japan’s 1998 squad?
Casey remembers the team’s foundation was built around star guards Kenichi Sako, one of the current national team’s assistant coaches, and Makoto Hasegawa.
“Well, one thing that I saw in the world games back then was the guard play,” said Casey, who guided the Toronto Raptors from 2011 to 2018 before being hired last summer to lead Detroit. “You had Ken and you had Hasegawa, two dynamic guards, and I think that was the key thing to that team as far as the success of that team, how good they were.”
Comparing the 1998 team to the 2019 squad, Casey said that there are big differences, citing guard play for the former and NBA players Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe as key difference-makers for the latter.
He described Hachimura as “one dynamic player” and commended Watanabe for his versatility and ability to play both forward positions, calling him a player “that can really score and put the ball on the floor.”
He added: “I think the strength of this team is definitely Rui and Watanabe, and the guard play is coming. It’s not there yet. I think that’s the other key growth for this team: How good can the guard play be?”