Although no longer affiliated with college basketball or the NBA, former USF basketball star Bill Cartwright continues to be a part of the sport in a unique way, continuing to show his dedication and love for the game. On January 22, Cartwright was hired as head coach for Osaka Evessa, a professional team in Japan’s BJ (Basketball Japan) league. The 55 year old will now be responsible for returning the once-elite Japanese franchise to relevancy, and proving that he can make a home for himself and build a reputation as a top-notch coach, all in a foreign country.
Cartwright arrived at USF in 1976 and immediately had a positive impact on the basketball team. After putting up solid numbers as a freshman, the 7’1” center developed into a standout player as a sophomore, leading the Dons to a 29-2 record. In 1978 and 1979, his last 2 years at USF, the team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and as a senior Cartwright averaged 24.5 points and 15.7 rebounds while leading the team to a record of 22-7.
After completing his decorated collegiate career, Cartwright was selected with the third overall pick in the 1979 NBA draft. He went on to have a memorable 16-year NBA career, highlighted by the three championships that he won as a member of the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls from 1991–1993. He retired in 1995, but was not ready to say goodbye to the game of basketball, and it wouldn’t be too long until he was back in the Bulls locker room as an assistant coach. In the middle of the 2001-02 NBA season, Cartwright was named head coach of his former team. He maintained that position until the 2002-03 season, when he was fired after the team got off to a 4-10 start.
Upon being dismissed by the Bulls, Cartwright spent many years serving as an NBA assistant coach, first for the New Jersey Nets and later the Phoenix Suns. However, until accepting the job for Osaka Evessa, he had not assumed the position of head coach since his days in Chicago. Becoming a coach for a team in a Japanese league is somewhat unorthodox by the standards of former NBA players and coaches, but Cartwright views this new chapter in his life as one of opportunity and possibility, and, as told to Ed Odeven of The Japan Times, one that brings “great challenge and fun…personally, I love a challenge.”
This challenge that Cartwright speaks of will be no small one. Osaka Evessa stood at a dismal 5-19 when Cartwright took over as coach, good for ninth place in the 10-team Western Conference. In order to make the playoffs, the team will have to reach sixth place in the conference by the end of their 52-game season. Despite the odds stacked against them, there have been recent signs of hope. In the games that Cartwright has coached since his arrival, Osaka Evessa has gone 2-0. Although their back-to-back victories were 89-79 and 83-73 wins that both came against the last-place Miyazaki Shining Suns, Cartwright is optimistic about the team’s future.
“The team has, I believe, played well in meaningful situations,” Cartwright said to Odeven.
“In close games, we’re really not that far away. The goal for this season is to develop our team into the best team we can be.”
If Cartwright is able to inject a shot of energy into Osaka Evessa, the results certainly have the potential to be exciting. The team is not without talent, as it has recruited both former NBA and collegiate players from the United States. Forward Rick Rickert played college basketball at Minnesota, and was taken as the 55th pick in the 2003 NBA draft. Guard Dwayne Lathan was a standout at Indiana State. If Osaka Evessa can put the pieces together and rally around their new coach, they have an outside shot to make the playoffs. For a franchise that won three championships in a row after its inception in 2004, this may seem like a somewhat meaningless accomplishment, but for the current team that has seen three coaches in the past two seasons, it would be a promising step forward.
By taking the job as head coach in Japan, Cartwright rejoins the group of USF basketball alums who are still involved with the sport. KC Jones, who won a pair of NCAA championships with the Dons in 1955 and 1956, is presently a color commentator for Hartford University’s men’s basketball team. Bill Russell, who played with Jones during the most successful stretch in USF basketball history, has remained involved with NBA basketball throughout his life. He has maintained close relationships with players on the Boston Celtics, and in 2009 the NBA Finals MVP was named the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award.
Although immediate prosperity may not be the most likely outcome of Cartwright’s new coaching role, he is ultimately eager to become immersed in a new culture and learn the ways of basketball in a country that he had previously been unfamiliar with.
“I’ve always wanted to come here (to Japan),” Cartwright told Odeven.
And, while getting used to a new life and a new team to monitor and teach, the former Don will surely use the knowledge he gained from his years in San Francisco and Chicago to bring better days to a struggling team.
“Basketball is a great sport,” he said. “And we are hoping to teach the people of Japan that it’s a very exciting sport. Every kid has a chance to do it and do well. Hopefully with our style of play, people will want to come out and watch a very exciting team.”