By Jim Armstrong
The Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — Former NBA coach Bob Hill couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with his son — even if it meant going all the way to Japan.
Hill accepted an invitation to coach the Tokyo Apache when the team’s American owners agreed to let him add his son to the staff.
“In the final analysis, them letting me bring Casey as my assistant was a significant reason,” Hill said. “To take your son overseas and coach with him in professional basketball is something that he and I will never forget.”
It was an opportunity Hill never had in a career that has included stints coaching the New York Knicks, the Indiana Pacers, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Seattle SuperSonics, as well as overseas in Italy and China.
So far, their results in Japan’s 14-team professional league have been encouraging. The Apache are third in the seven-team Eastern Conference with a 13-9 record. In addition, Casey Hill is gaining valuable experience.
“I’ve learned so much from him,” the 27-year-old said. “Just seeing how organized and prepared he is, [it is] one of the biggest things. He writes up every game, every practice.”
Casey, who played at Trinity University and graduated in 2007, wants to follow his father and brothers into the family business. Cameron, the oldest, was an assistant coach at Kentucky and now works at the U.S. Basketball Academy in Oregon. Chris is the head coach at Jesuit College Preparatory School in Dallas.
Among the differences the Hills have noticed about coaching in Japan is the work ethic of the country’s players.
“I had two long conversations with Bobby Valentine before I came over here about Japanese athletes,” Bob Hill said. “He told me what they will do. He said ‘They will be there early, they will stay late, they all want to be the Last Samurai.’
“He said if one of them gets a little cocky, the others will pound him down into the group and he was right about that.”
Valentine had plenty of success with Japanese athletes. He spent six years in Japan as the manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines and led the Pacific League team to the Japan Series championship in 2005.
For the 61-year-old Hill, the biggest challenge has been getting a diverse group of athletes to buy into his system.
The team includes 7’1″ center Robert Swift, who played for Hill in Seattle, and 19-year-old Jeremy Tyler, a 6’11” power forward.
“The Japanese players have never heard some of the things I’ve said before nor have some of the Americans,” Hill said. “Swift understands it because he played in the NBA for me, so he understands my system.”
Helping Tyler develop has been another priority. Once touted as a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Tyler struggled in his first pro season in Israel after becoming the first American-born player to leave high school early to play professionally overseas.
Tyler, a reserve, is averaging 8.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 31.7 minutes in 21 games in the league, which is made up of homegrown talent, former Division I players from the United States, and some former NBA players.
“I’ve been a dad for 33 years, so part of my responsibility is just that, try to be his dad,” Hill said of Tyler. “I have to be his coach and his teacher, I’ve been really hard on him all year, but he deserved it at times.”
Though basketball is gaining popularity in Japan, it still lags far behind sports such as baseball and football. That’s why point guard Cohey Aoki is thrilled to have Hill as his coach.
“It’s a great opportunity to play under a coach with NBA experience,” said Aoki, a five-time All-Star and one of the league’s top players. “Every day is a learning opportunity, and I’m grateful for it. I would like to continue to absorb as much knowledge as I can.”
Los Angeles-based investment firm Evolution Capital Management purchased the team in June and moved quickly to hire Hill, making him the first former NBA coach in the league.
“I went to Italy for a year and had coached overseas, so I was aware of some of the things that you need to be aware of to coach overseas,” Hill said. “The Apache owners asked if I would be interested, and I don’t think you ever say no to a job, especially with the economy the way it is.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been problems along the way.
Because the Apache wanted to play all their home games in one building, the team opened the season with a 12-game road trip because its contract with the Yoyogi Gymnasium didn’t start until 2011.
When they finally did get to their home opener at the 3,000-seat arena, there were only about 1,000 fans in attendance.
“The thing that’s been so difficult is the schedule, and we understood that because the owners wanted to play all the games at Yoyogi,” Hill said. “I think there has been so much learned. [For example], the Japanese don’t come out too much during the week because they don’t get home in time from work, so they are going to be entertained by sports more on the weekend than they are during the week.”
Another lesson the Hills can chalk up to experience. ♦