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Raptors coach Dwane Casey and late, great Japanese basketball coach Mototaka Kohama were two of a kind

Kohama and Casey had a long and fruitful friendship

It was perhaps an unlikely friendship.

Dwane Casey was the sixth black player to be a member of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. He grew up during the segregation era in the American South, witnessed Ku Klux Klan rallies in his hometown of Morganfield, Kentucky, and spent countless hours working in coal mines and tobacco fields during the summertime. Mototaka Kohama was a basketball coach from Akita, Japan. He grew up during World War II — and was told to stop pursuing basketball because it was an American sport.

The two crossed paths in 1979, when Kohama spent a year in Lexington in order to study the champion Wildcats’ basketball program. Casey was then a graduate assistant with the team and often spoke with Kohama about basketball concepts after practices.

When asked about what drew Casey to Kohama, one particular word came to mind.

“Empathy,” Casey said. “[He was] different than I am, and was an outsider. I was attracted to him from that standpoint. He just had a great personality. It was a friendship that ignited and was easy. The more he learned English, which he did, and the more I learned Japanese, which I didn’t, it became easier to communicate.”

Despite the language barrier, Casey and Kohama started hanging out off the court and found other ways to connect. One was their shared interest in Nat King Cole.

“We used to go dancing,” Casey said. “I was young and single. I’d take him out. He loved music. We’d go to the disco. He was such an easy guy to be around and hang out with.”

Casey invited Kohama for dinner with his grandparents, where they had fried chicken and mashed potatoes. “He was very comfortable in my little country town,” Casey said. “I’m sure he didn’t know what he ate, though.”

“The more he learned English, which he did, and the more I learned Japanese, which I didn’t, it became easier to communicate.”

Jerry McKamey, a childhood friend of Casey’s, wasn’t surprised to hear about his friend’s generosity of spirit.

“Even as a child, his manners were impeccable,” McKamey said. “He’s a very genuine and kind-hearted person. That’s who he has always been.”

Casey, having introduced Kohama to his home cooking, decided to make his friend feel at home as well, surprising Kohama by driving him 60 miles from Lexington to Louisville, Kentucky, to eat at a Benihana of Tokyo. When they arrived, Kohama broke the news to Casey: This was not authentic Japanese food.

“My heart just dropped,” Casey said. “It broke my heart.”

Their year together though, forged a friendship that lasted almost 40 years.

Casey built his coaching resume in the NCAA as an assistant coach at Western Kentucky. And then, while at Kentucky in the 1980s, he began visiting Japan regularly to assist with basketball programs and clinics overseas. In 1988, while working as an assistant coach at Kentucky, Casey mailed an envelope during the legal recruitment of Chris Mills, then a student-athlete at Los Angeles’ Fairfax High School.

An employee at Emery Worldwide claimed to have seen $1,000 in cash addressed to Mills’ father. The scandal resulted in Kentucky being placed on probation for three years for NCAA recruiting and academic violations and a five-year coaching ban for Casey. Casey sued Emery for $7 million and settled out of court for a seven-figure sum. The ban was rescinded, but Casey couldn’t land a coaching job after the scandal.

In 1989, Kohama called and asked Casey to come coach in Japan. “It was a lifeline,” Casey said.

While in Japan, Casey worked for the national team and was the head coach of two Japan Basketball League (JBL) teams: the Sekisui Chemical and Isuzu Motors Lynx. He discovered an appreciation for teaching the fundamentals of basketball to players who had different skill levels and size compared with players in the NCAA. Casey also reconnected with Kohama, who returned his friend’s Kentucky hospitality by introducing him to shabu shabu and by hanging out late at night at karaoke bars. Casey also came to appreciate why Kohama was known as the godfather of basketball in his country.

“He always had a vision,” Casey said, “of what he wanted basketball to be in Japan.”

Ed Odeven, a basketball writer for The Japan Times since 2006, remembers Kohama as someone who wanted to push the standard of basketball in Japan in the professional leagues and at the national team level. Kohama pushed for Japan to improve its youth development at the local level, with the purpose of giving Japanese players more of a chance to compete in the NCAA and NBA.

Kohama won seven titles in the JBL as the head coach of Isuzu. Odeven compares his resume to those of Casey Stengel and John Madden, coaches who were remembered for their sustained level of excellence.

“He was a great winner,” Odeven said. “He was demanding, but he knew how to win.”

“He just wanted basketball to be good in Japan. When you talked to him, you saw that shine through.”

Kohama was ultracompetitive as a head coach, recruiting the best available players from America and spending more than other teams in his pursuit of championships. If those tactics sometimes rubbed opposing coaches the wrong way, their impression of Kohama often changed when they met him in person, as it did for Bob Pierce, who coached 13 years in Japan.

“He just loved basketball and wanted everyone to succeed,” Pierce said. “I realized he wasn’t this evil genius who wanted to win all the time. He just wanted basketball to be good in Japan. When you talked to him, you saw that shine through.”

Casey played an integral role in turning Kohama’s vision into reality. It was Casey who placed a call to former New York Knicks first-round pick Kenny Walker in 1996 to persuade him to extend his basketball career in Japan with Isuzu. The team won the JBL championship and fondly recalls being coached by Kohama.

“He had a presence about him,” Walker said. “He was so revered. Whenever he walked in, it was like the president was walking in.”

Casey was also the assistant coach to Kohama for Japan’s men’s basketball team at the 1998 FIBA Basketball World Championships in Athens, Greece — the country’s first appearance in 31 years. Japan lost all three games in group play by 91 points, but Dan Weiss, a member of the team, remembers the impact Casey made.

“I saw a different approach,” Weiss said. “Japanese coaches get stuck in traditional basketball drills with passing and shooting that never relate to what you’re doing on the court. Dwane worked on a lot of rebounding drills, stepping in, screening out, things that we never did before he got there. He didn’t come in and try and change players as much as he made them more aware of what they could do.”

Casey has also helped groom local coaches in Japan. Toshi Sato, who coached the Hakuoh University women’s basketball team to the All Japan Intercollegiate Basketball Championship title last year and is currently head coach of the under-24 Japanese national team, credits Casey, with whom he worked in the JBL, for helping him with game preparation and improving his knowledge of defensive schemes.

“He’s my mentor,” Sato said. Sato has visited Casey at his various NBA stops, and the two remain close friends today.

In 1994, Casey returned to the United States, working as an assistant coach under George Karl with the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics. In 2005, he got his first head coaching job with the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he went 53-69 over two seasons. In 2011, Casey won an NBA championship as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks, and he was hired as a head coach by the Toronto Raptors that summer. After two losing seasons, Casey led Toronto to four consecutive playoff appearances, including the franchise’s first Eastern Conference finals appearance last season, which earned him a three-year extension with the team.

And through all of this, Casey and Kohama have regularly communicated via email. Casey kept up his visits to Japan, including a honeymoon trip in 2006 with his wife, Brenda, where they met Kohama for dinner at a shabu shabu restaurant. Last summer, before flying to Rio de Janeiro to watch Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan compete for Team USA at the Summer Games, Casey booked a two-day trip to Japan and flew alone to see Kohama, who was battling cancer, for the first time in nine years.

“I knew from what everyone was telling me the end was coming,” Casey said. “It was a very difficult trip to go see him because I knew it was probably the last time I’d get to see him. He was very frail and had lost a lot of his strength.”

Still, Casey and Kohama, along with Sato, Odeven and Japanese basketball agent Toshinori Koga gathered for dinner on the first evening to reminisce. What Odeven saw was a special friendship that went beyond just a shared passion for basketball.

“Their friendship extended decades, across different countries, different continents and different stages of their lives,” Odeven said. “They took their careers seriously, but they had a shared sense of humor. They both realized that this is sports. This is supposed to be fun. It was a genuine friendship. I don’t think there was any bulls— involved. They just genuinely liked each other.”

On his second day in Japan, Casey and Kohama participated in a basketball clinic at Hakuoh University, where approximately 100 coaches from around the country attended to learn practice drills and receive a speech from Kohama. Before leaving, Casey had one last message for his dear friend.

“I said thank you,” Casey said. “Thank you for bringing me over here when I went through some things.”

Kohama died in January at the age of 84, but his passing does not mean the end of Casey’s relationship with basketball in Japan. He still plans on visiting regularly and would like to take his two kids, Justine and Zachary, to see Japan one day.

“It’s like going home for him,” McKamey said. “He is respectful and grateful for the hand they extended to him. … There’s a debt of gratitude.”

For Casey, his lifelong friendship with Kohama and the years he spent in Japan mean the world, literally.

“It was the hospitality, and just how people invited you in with warmth,” Casey said. “There’s always been a connection. I just felt at peace and at home among my friends in Japan.”

Alex Wong is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He writes for Yahoo Canada Sports, GQ, The New York Times, SLAM, and other places.