Speed, shitsukoi push Japan women to greater heights

Arjun Kalra/ESPN

A word Tom Hovasse, the coach of Japan's women's basketball team, uses quite often is shitsukoi.

The Japanese expression, loosely translating to 'persistence', powers the team's defining strength: speed. Averaging 5' 9", petite by basketball standards, in size at the Asia Cup, the team's spirited runs and quick layups are built to combat their primary foe: lack of height.

With every grinding practice session, coach Hovasse engraves the need for speed deeper into their soul: "That's what we have to do," Hovasse, 50, who hails from Colorado, tells ESPN. "We run and run and run. We're so small that we can't play a half-court game. We have to go full court so we practice with pace. We don't rest very often in practice. Even before we drink water we have a run."

It's all adding up for Hovasse's girls. Logging home their second straight win at the Asia Cup in Bengaluru, this time against North Korea, the defending champions are moving swiftly towards a 2018 World Cup berth.

Point guard Manami Fujioka led the tally for Japan with 14 points, four rebounds and four assists on Monday, in a game that hardly dropped tempo. Trailing by two points at the end of the first quarter, Japan opened up a 20-point lead in the third, at 54-34. Pacing courtside, hands on his hips, in a tucked-in white t-shirt, a towering Hovasse at 6' 6", cupped his right palm against his mouth, throwing in commands in Japanese through the length of the match.

Turning out for a few minutes for NBA side Atlanta Hawks in the 1994-95 season, Hovasse moved to Japan at the age of 28 to play for Toyota Pacers. Though he went back home to San Diego after retirement, even trying to take a fresh career path with a start-up cellphone company, Japan found a way to bring him back. In January this year, he became the first foreign-born coach to take charge of Japan's women's basketball side.

He was assistant coach of the side when Rio happened. Though Japan wound up eighth at the Games in what was their first appearance since 2004, they gave eventual gold medalists USA quite a chase in the first half of their quarter-final match.

"What Rio did do for us was get people to watch matches, fill stadiums," Hovasse says. "In fact in our club championship last season we had about 4000 people packing the stands, and had to turn around 100 away. So it's getting popular, you know."

Everything about the team's practice sessions and matches back in Japan, Hovasse says, is about perpetuating the idea of speed. All the props are built to fit the central theme. "You'd find banners with 'speed' painted across them strung to railings and fast-paced background music playing. It helps set the tone and keep up the speed of play."

Asked to pencil out the challenges of his role, Hovasse is remarkably focused. "Australia," he confesses, laughing. He's not thinking beyond the next opponent, the next match, or the next title.

"We've played them a number of times over the last couple of years and lost narrowly to them in Rio. But they have a new coach now so they're playing a different style of basketball. We've got to get in the top four and win this championship. Our main goal is Tokyo 2020 but we really have to take this title home."

Just before speaking to ESPN, Hovasse had wrapped up interviews to waiting Japanese media, largely untroubled, without an interpreter by his side. He was thus mildly relieved to finally be able to speak in English, a language he sparingly uses on a regular day back at the Ajinomoto national training center in Tokyo. "I coach 100% in Japanese. I don't speak English at all during the day."

The Japanese language, though, he notes, has grown on him over the past two decades and helped calm his mind.

"Something that really helped me was speaking to players in Japanese," he says. "Earlier I would just say something in English, maybe yell and keep going.

"I have high expectations. I know these girls can play at a high level, and when they don't do it I can get a little upset. But I'm not as hot-headed anymore. Japan has changed that about me."