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Despite losing in World Cup, Japan basketball on the rise

September 27, 2018

SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, Spain (AP) — Japan coach Tom Hovasse had a goal of making the medal stand at the Women’s Basketball World Cup this year.

The team fell short when it was eliminated by China in the quarterfinal qualifier on Wednesday.

Despite the disappointing finish, the future is bright for the Japanese heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Japan was the second-youngest team at the World Cup, averaging just over 24 years old.

Even with the youth, Japan won two games after going winless in the 2014 tournament — a major step in the right direction. Had host Spain not lost to Belgium, Japan would have finished second in the pool and might still be playing in this tournament. The team won without its only real post player, Ramu Tokashiki, who is injured.

Hovasse, who played at Penn State in the late 1980s and had a brief stint in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, played professionally in Japan for 10 years before becoming a coach. He was given the national team coaching job in 2017, becoming the first foreign-born head coach. He had been an assistant on the team before his promotion.

Japanese basketball leadership liked the way Hovasse interacted with the players when he was an assistant, which helped him get the head coaching position. He’s a big reason that star guard Yuki Miyazawa has become a prolific 3-point shooter. He remembers when he first started coaching her a few years back she was shooting a two-handed shot — a style that used to be common in Asian countries.

“She’s really grown as a player and I’m really proud of the player she’s become for sure,” the coach said. “She worked endlessly as her mechanics were completely wrong. Over the course of years her mechanics straightened out. Now she’s pure with very good form.”

Hovasse’s team plays a fun style to watch that has all five players able to shoot 3-pointers and make quick cuts to the basket, which creates mismatches to opposing teams that tend to have big centers. It’s different than the way most other traditional Asian teams play.

He also made it a point, as a foreign-born coach, to respect the Japanese culture and adapt his system to it instead of trying to implement something foreign to his players.

“To me it’s almost an advantage to be small and have the discipline that we have. It’s the culture of Japan basketball,” he said. “When I got into it, I was amazed at what they do. To be given the opportunity to be the head coach of the Japan national team, I’m so grateful to have this opportunity. We never have done much on the national stage, but the strength is there. I’m just trying to tweak it.”

Hovasse, who said he spoke only a few words of Japanese when he first got to the country, now is well versed. English isn’t spoken at practice and he holds press conferences in Japanese. He was thrown a little bit of a loop when he did his first presser at the World Cup in English.

“That shook me,” he said. “Usually it’s in Japanese and I’m comfortable with my mistakes. As long as they understand what I’m trying to say.”

While he speaks Japanese well, he said he can’t be cute with his players trying to explain things since the meaning might get lost in translation.

“I’m just very direct, I explain it to them and can’t sugarcoat it,” he said.

His players certainly have taken to their American-born coach.

“Coach’s style of play is fun for us,” Japanese star Maki Takada said through a translator.

Now with the World Cup over, his task turns to leading Japan to its first Olympic medal since 1992, when the team won the silver.

“We are young and gained valuable experience here,” he said.

The Japanese hope it will pay off at home in two years.

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