Road (trip) less traveled: My season in Japan

Knicks and Bulls great Bill Cartwright relied heavily on an interpreter during his season in Japan.
Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

Bill Cartwright was enjoying his first season away from the NBA in more than 33 years when he got an offer to go abroad. The three-time NBA champion and longtime starting center for the Knicks and Bulls had carved out a coaching career following his playing days, leading the Bulls from 2001-04 and serving as an assistant for the Nets and Suns in the years after. But his next job would take him outside the friendly confines of The Association and over to Japan, where the Osaka Evessa sought out an experienced coach to turn their sinking season around. Cartwright recently shared his story with

Any basketball player will tell you that the game never leaves you once you begin. It's a wonderful, exciting journey that never seems to end -- and you hope it won't.

I've been involved with basketball since I first started playing when I was 10, and I'm still involved all these years later at 56. It's been a journey that's taken me from a small farm in Sacramento to the University of San Francisco to the bright lights of the NBA. But I never expected it to take me 6,530 miles from my home in Chicago to the mysteries of Asia as the head coach of the Osaka Evessa in the Basketball Japan league (BJ League), the country's professional basketball league.

I think I proved I loved new adventures by playing in New York for nine seasons and I have always had a curiosity about Asia. I realized I could do what I love doing, coaching basketball, while gaining some appreciation for a new culture and embarking on a new journey. Before I got the job offer, I was enjoying my time at home, spending time with my family, conducting coaching clinics and working on my businesses. But after getting a call from a U.S. sports agent who now lives in Japan to see if the job piqued my interest, I got the same feeling I had when former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause asked me join Chicago's coaching staff after I retired 17 years ago. It wasn't something I had ever considered, but after some reflection it felt right and I followed my intuition. This game can grab a hold of you.

I wouldn't be the first NBA coach to venture to Japan. That was Bob Hill, who coached the Knicks, Pacers, Sonics and Spurs in the NBA and has coached the Tokyo Apache since 2011. There haven't been many big NBA players to ever play in Japan and there was only one JBL player, Yuta Tabuse, to ever play in the NBA, for a brief stint with the Suns in 2004-2005.

Was I nervous about going to Japan? I was inheriting a team that was 5-19. What was I worried about? We weren't going to get any worse.

I accepted the job and soon after was on an 18-hour flight with my wife, Sheri, and my agent to Osaka, which is Japan's third largest city. The Japanese are big NBA fans, so when I was introduced at my press conference the fans and media knew all about the Bulls' championship years and even the team's current stars. The Japanese are remarkably dedicated NBA fans. Every media outlet in Osaka and most throughout Japan attended that day.

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The press conference was also my first attempt at communicating through an interpreter, which I found to be a curious experience. The interpreter would often take three times as long to say in Japanese what I was saying in English. Fortunately, as those who know me will attest, I'm not the most loquacious speaker.

I would quickly learn that interpreters were my lifeline, not only to the media but to my team. During my time in Japan, I probably went through about 10 of them. I'd say maybe three were good. The main reason some weren't effective was their lack of basketball knowledge. It was much easier with the ones who already knew the game and some of the terminology.

Regardless of what language I was speaking, I knew right away the Evessa needed a lot of work. I was stunned by how little the team practiced. In the BJ League, you play a 58-game season. The games are only Saturdays and Sundays and the rest of the week is for practice, which the Evessa obviously weren't doing much of. Before I arrived, the team had Monday and Tuesdays off and only did a light walkthrough on Fridays.

Not surprisingly, the team was not in good condition. I immediately changed our practice format to just Mondays off and we practiced for a minimum of 2/13 hours a day. We were basically in training camp mode the entire time I was there, something my old Knicks coach Hubie Brown would have been proud of.

Cartwright said Japanese fans love the NBA and knew him from his glory days with the Bulls.
Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

International teams are generally as good as their foreign stars and the Evessa had its share. Most notably was Rick Rickert, a 6-foot-10 center from Minnesota who played briefly for the Timberwolves and Pistons, but is probably best known for getting punched by Kevin Garnett during an offseason workout We also had three other American players that played Division I college ball. There are only a few tall players in the BJ League, perhaps a half dozen, so guards and forwards tend to dominate the game.

I decided to install the triangle offense, and, interestingly enough, the Japanese and American players were all familiar with it. The Japanese players on their own downloaded the Tex Winter triangle tape off the Internet and began poring through it. I know a lot of NBA coaches who would do anything to see that type of work ethic. Once we were able to practice and learn about the importance of post passes and letting ball movement dictate the shot, the players really took to it.

I was methodical in my teachings because the Japanese players, not surprisingly, did not understand English. It was crucial to establish principles in practice because delivering orders during a game (through an interpreter) wasn't ideal. One time I told my interpreter to tell the players to push the ball, but my interpreter proceeded to speak for what seemed like 20 seconds. After that, I realized how important practice time was -- and that made for some really, really long practices.

One day at practice, I was putting in a new play. The guys seemed to like it and asked what the play was called. I told them the play is called "chin" (a term used in Pete Carril's Princeton offense). As soon as I told them the name they burst out laughing. Naturally, I asked what they were laughing about. My assistant coaches came over and whispered to me that "chin" in Japanese translates to "penis". We didn't use too much Princeton terminology after that.

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We won our first two games. The next two we played were against Okinawa, who had won the championship the year before. They beat us in both games, but we should have won both. Considering how little time we had to prepare, I told my team we shouldn't lose the rest of the year if we can play like that against the reigning champs on short notice. That helped them develop their identity.

Oftentimes, a team picks up its identity from its city. In much the same way the Bulls reflect the hard working, blue-collar atmosphere of Chicago, I thought the Evessa could embody the working class city of Osaka. The team I inherited had a poor record, but the players were anxious to prove they were better than the mark indicated. The quality of play in the Japanese league, I believe, is similar to the NBA's Developmental League. Most of the international players are capable of doing something well, whether it's shooting, passing or defending. None can do all three (or they wouldn't be here). As for the Japanese players, there are no NBA-ready players currently playing there, but things could change quickly. The Japanese teams need to come to the U.S. and play against elite competition. I believe that will help them develop NBA talent. But the skills are there.

The BJ League has some drastically different rules from the NBA. Of the four 10-minute quarters, you are only allowed to play two non-Japanese players in the first and third quarters and three in the second and fourth. This presented an interesting chess match on how to get the best out of your international players. Japanese owners and fans want to see Japanese players on the floor, but they also understand the American players are usually the best players and ultimately can make the biggest difference. If a team is losing, the normal reaction for the owneagr is to get better American players.

I really didn't notice any big distinctions (other than the language barrier) in coaching the players in Japan from the NBA. The Japanese players all want the same things that the non-Japanese players want: playing time. They want to score and they don't want to be blamed for anything. Probably the biggest difference is Japanese players will rarely show or tell you how they feel. No one is demanding to be traded.

Communicating with Japanese players during games was no easy task for Cartwright.
Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

Basketball is probably the sixth favorite sport in Japan, behind baseball, sumo, soccer, gymnastics and ping pong. It isn't played year round and most high school teams only play 10-15 games a year. The U.S. players that last the longest in the country learn to adapt to the conformist Japanese ways. Japanese ownership may ask you to give a talk to a school or do a clinic or a sponsor's event every day. Right after a game, they'll ask you to participate in a clinic for the fans. Basketball is such a new sport to the Japanese they do not put the players first. They put the fans' needs first and the players second. So the Americans must conform to that thinking or they'll be miserable.

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A few weeks in I started to realize how much basketball is a universal language. Once we were on the floor, everyone was treated the same and taught the same. The camaraderie on our team was formed through hard work and learning. As the season went on we were also able to bond a bit more with all the travel and road games. While on the road we had dinner together every night. One time, we even went to a Japanese bathhouse, a popular local custom and a place where you are also required to be in the nude. I don't necessarily recommend this for all NBA teams, but it worked for us.

The hotels we stayed in were very good. I'll admit I was surprised. I was expecting small rooms with short beds, a dreadful sight for someone with a 7-foot-1 frame. The only real drawback was the bathrooms, which were very tight with low ceilings and not much room. And naturally if you want to watch TV, you better understand Japanese.

Whether I was walking around on the streets, taking the train or even at the games, the Japanese did not stare at me despite towering over pretty much everyone. At least, not so that I could see. They were always very polite and if they were staring it was generally after I walked by.

Japanese fans were similar to fans you'd see at Duke or Kentucky college games. They'd basically cheer the entire game -- in English, too. After the games, the players and coaches walk around the court as fans are lined up to get high fives. Some even bring gifts to give us, like cookies, candies and one time an artist drew a picture of me and presented it to me.

The end of the season came quickly and my time in Osaka was up. We barely missed the playoffs despite being 5-19 when I got there. We won most our games and even had an unprecedented 10-game winning streak along the way. The hole we started in was just too deep to dig out of.

It's been a few months since I returned from Japan and I'm still processing all the lessons I learned while contemplating where my basketball journey will take me next.

Would I do it all again? I think so. But right now I'm spending some much-needed time at home after being away from my family. You can only Skype so much.

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