OSAKA, Japan – A decade removed from his last head coaching job, Bill Cartwright is back on the bench — bringing the five championship rings he won as a player and assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls to Japan.
Cartwright was hired by the Osaka Evessa of Japan's professional league in January. When he took over, the team had a dismal 5-19 record. Since arriving, Cartwright had raised Osaka's record to 20-26 headed into the weekend, including a 10-game winning streak from March 3 to April 6.
"This was a great opportunity," Cartwright said in a recent interview. "I've always wanted to come over here and have a look around. It seemed like a great adventure, and why not? The timing was good and there was nothing stopping me."
After being fired as head coach of the Bulls in 2003, Cartwright worked as an assistant for the New Jersey Nets and Phoenix Suns, then spent a season out of the NBA for the first time since being drafted by the New York Knicks in 1979. A basketball lifer, Cartwright said he's glad to be back in charge.
"I always felt, even as an assistant coach, I could make a contribution," he said. "But I think that every assistant coach wants to be a head coach at one point in time. I do like it."
The Osaka team is the most successful organization in the league, winning the championship three times from 2005-2008.
But things fell apart when the team's leader, two-time MVP Lynn Washington, was arrested in 2012 on suspicion of smuggling a small amount of marijuana into Japan. Washington was later exonerated of all charges following his arrest and 18 days in an Osaka jail but the controversy forced him to retire last April and eventually cost head coach Ryan Blackwell his job.
Washington was a fan favorite and his departure — and how it was handled by the team — left many fans bitter. Even though Washington was cleared, Osaka ownership was eager to clean house and started the 2013 season with a revamped roster.
Serbian coach Zoran Kreckovic was fired after an 0-4 start and the team didn't do much better under Takao Furuya, who became an assistant coach when the 55-year-old Cartwright was brought in.
With his reputation as a patient mentor of young players, Cartwright was considered the perfect fit to restore a sense of order.
"We always say that you can't coach players unless you teach them first," Cartwright said. "If a player is not doing what he needs to be doing, he needs to be taught better. We teach guys how to play, if we can't teach them one way, we have to teach them another way."
Osaka forward Rick Rickert, who played in the NBA Development League, Slovenia, Greece, Spain and New Zealand before arriving in Japan, says the team is a lot more focused under Cartwright.
"He's got us really focused on fundamentals in practice," Rickert said in an interview with The Japan Times. "He's preparing us to play aggressive and make smart decisions. He's very knowledgeable, and yes we're learning stuff."
Cartwright said there were no glaring weaknesses that needed to be addressed when he came in but the team needed a new direction.
"These are hardworking guys," Cartwright said. "All I did was give them a philosophy of play. I gave them a system of play and now I hold them accountable to the system. They understand clearly what they have to do within the system and are executing it."
Cartwright, who played for four Hall of Fame coaches — Red Holzman, Hubie Brown, Rick Pitino and Phil Jackson — has impressed rival coaches with how quickly he has adapted to Japan and the league.
"Bill has done a great job of setting the foundation for Osaka success in a very short period of time," said ex-NBA forward Bob Nash, head coach of the Toyama Grouses. "You win big games with commitment from the team to defend and Bill has his team really working hard on defense."
Cartwright was selected No. 3 overall by the Knicks in the 1979 NBA Draft. He averaged 20-plus points in each of his first two seasons with New York, and made the All-Star team as a rookie.
But he missed almost two full seasons from 1984-86 with foot injuries that would alter the course of his career.
After nine seasons in New York, Cartwright was traded to the Bulls for forward Charles Oakley in 1988. The Bulls needed someone to complement Michael Jordan's scoring and Scottie Pippen's defense, though he received a less than warm welcome in Chicago where Jordan reportedly told teammates not to pass him the ball.
The 7-foot-1 center said he wasn't bothered by the reception he got in Chicago.
"You gotta understand, nothing was going to bother me, I just spent nine years in New York," Cartwright said. "If you understand anything about New York and New York media nothing is gonna bother you or phase you. You understand after that about character and who you are."
He won three championship rings as the Bulls starting center in 1991, '92 and '93, and served as an assistant coach for Jackson in the final two years of the Bulls second three-peat, 1997 and '98.
Cartwright said his experience in Chicago had a huge impact on his coaching philosophy.
"What you learn from talent is a lesson that you've all got to play of one mind," Cartwright said. "So if one guy is out of place, the system is not going to run right. (In Chicago) the talent was already there but we never won until it was brought together by Phil with one mind."
Cartwright is the second former NBA head coach to be put in charge of a team in Japan's professional league. Bob Hill, who coached Cartwright in 1986-87, guided the now-defunct Tokyo Apache during the 2010-11 campaign.
Cartwright says he'll be with Osaka until the end of the season and then decide what he'll do next.
"You never know," Cartwright said. "If you had told me in January that I would be over here I would have said you are crazy. I am a basketball coach, I know that, so I'll be coaching somewhere."