Former Lumberjacks forward finds 'sense of purpose' coaching in Japan
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Former Lumberjacks forward finds 'sense of purpose' coaching in Japan

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Ruben Boykin Jr.

Ruben Boykin coaches during a game in Japan.

TOKYO -- Gratitude and passion sum up the new chapter of Ruben Boykin Jr.’s basketball career.

Boykin is grateful to be employed as a full-time basketball coach. Boykin also recognizes that his passion for the game is an important trait to possess as he learns the ins and outs of teaching the game and concocting strategies to beat opponents.

The former Northern Arizona Lumberjacks forward (2003-07) is in his first season as an assistant coach for the Osaka Evessa of Japan’s B. League.

The Evessa are one of 18 teams in the league’s first division, and there are 18 more in the second division. There’s a European soccer-style promotion/relegation in place for the B. League, which was established in 2016 after the merger of two leagues.

Through Sunday, Osaka was in first place at 21-10 in the six-team West Division. Under new head coach Kensaku Tennichi, the Evessa have elevated their play after an up-and-down 2018-19 campaign that ended on a 23-37 record.

Boykin, 34, excelled in one of those two circuits, the bj-league (or Basketball Japan League) as a star for the Akita Northern Happinets in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. The Northern Happinets were back-to-back championship runner-ups in Boykin’s two seasons in an Akita uniform. In his first season in Japan, the Los Angeles native averaged 13.9 points, a league-best 13.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

“I couldn't thank the Osaka Evessa organization enough for bringing me here,” Boykin said in a recent interview.

He continued: “I could not get a coaching job anywhere just a couple of months ago, mainly because universities want coaches that have been coaching for five years. I was working a 9-to-5 job and had my own business of breaking down middle school, high school, college and professional basketball players’ game film. My goal was to teach boys and girls how to gain the coaches' trust, become a star in your role, possibly get a scholarship, and get paid to play at the pro level. I did this because I wanted to have a voice in the game. I didn't care what age group I was teaching, I just wanted to teach the game the right way. And by teaching kids, it helped me learn so much about gaining trust, hard work, adjusting and never quitting.

“I'm hoping that's the reputation that I'm gaining as a coach in Japan.”

Let’s hit pause for a moment and recall that Boykin was a fixture in the Northern Arizona lineup during his four years in Flagstaff. He started 90 of his 119 games for the Lumberjacks. With Mike Adras at the helm, Boykin was named to the All-Big Sky Conference First Team in 2006 and ’07.

That led to a pro career that lasted more than a decade. The 6-foot-7 Boykin’s career started in Poland in 2007 and included stints with teams in Italy, Greece and Germany. After suiting up for the Northern Happinets, he also competed for three more Japanese teams, the Bambitious Nara, Earthfriends Tokyo Z and Sunrockers Shibuya, for whom he played his final game in 2018.

Now, he’s working alongside a head coach Tennichi, who steered the Evessa to back-to-back-to-back titles in the now-disbanded bj-league’s first three seasons (2005-06, 2006-07 and 2006-08). Tennichi left the club in 2010 and worked in the collegiate and pro ranks before returning this past offseason.

Along with Boykin, Tennichi’s coaching staff includes assistant Akitomo Takeno, a former standout Japanese guard who retired at age 31 due to knee injuries two years ago. Boykin and Takeno were Akita teammates.

POSITIVE COACHING SYNERGY

In Boykin’s view, the “synergy between me, Coach Tennichi and Coach Takeno has been better than I would have ever thought.”

Pressed for more details, Boykin responded: “I've been on teams where the assistants weren't too fond of the head coach and vise versa. Both Tennichi and Takeno can speak English, so that makes the communication between us much easier and effective. Each of us values what the other person has to say and we solve problems together. It doesn't matter if we are in a staff meeting or in a timeout in a critical part of the game, we are on the same page.

“Whether it’s the head coach or one of us, the players are hearing the same message. And I think that is very valuable to a team.”

In August, Evessa assistant general manager Shinji Tomiyama reached out to Boykin via Facebook and asked him if he was interested in joining the team’s revamped coaching staff.

The timing was right, according to Boykin.

“I was trying to get a Division I college coaching job in America for a year and could not get one because I had no coaching experience,” Boykin said. “The universities did not necessarily trust that I knew what I was doing even though I played professionally for 11 years.”

Now nearly midway through his first season as a pro coach, Boykin is convinced he made the right decision, which he said included discussions with his wife about the move.

What’s more, familiarity with Takeno helped him make the decision to move back overseas again. Takeno, who had played for under Tennichi and served as assistant coach under him on the Nishinomiya Storks, provided well-received feedback to Boykin about the coach.

“I asked him how Coach Tennichi was and he gave me nothing but positive reports about the type of person he is,” Boykin recalled. “I did not know much about Coach Tennichi until I got to Osaka. He spoke with me about his basketball philosophy and what his mentor Coach Paul Westhead taught him.

“Being here and being able to talk to Coach Tennichi about basketball every day has been a blessing.”

Boykin, a graduate of University High School in Los Angeles, believes one of the key factors in Osaka’s success this season is the overall emphasis on everyone in the organization working together for the same goals.

A SENSE OF PURPOSE

There’s a sense of purpose that permeates throughout the Evessa organization, Boykin observed.

“I think I have made an impact here, but it's more than me,” Boykin said. “I have to be on the same page as the head coach, he has to be on the same page as the general managers, and they have to be on the same page with the office staff and ticket holders. Our fans have been awesome at home and on the road, giving us an added advantage. At the end of the day we can work with players on their skills, we can encourage players and put guys in the best positions for them to be successful, but they have to make the shot. And so far they have been.”

It’s clear that Boykin takes his job seriously and devotes the time needed to genuinely prepare for practices and games, coaches meetings and other work tasks. But like any other young coach, he understands he has room for growth.

“I feel my coaching strengths are breaking down film on a team and individual level,” Boykin said. “I pride myself in helping a player and our team get better. But my greatest strength as a coach is being enthusiastic in my belief of any player on our team. In my opinion one of the biggest parts of basketball that is most often overlooked is someone truly believing in you.”

And what aspects of his coaching responsibilities is Boykin trying to improve these days?

“Right now I'm trying to elevate my level of understanding what adjustments need to be made sooner,” Boykin said. “This was bothering me earlier this season because I would wait until I saw it on film, then in the staff meeting we would talk about it.”

Boykin seeks wisdom from some of the past and present giants in the coaching profession to find out what made them successful.

Consider it an important homework assignment that he’s given himself to do.

“I read about books and listen to interviews of Phil Jackson, Bill Belichick, John Thompson, and one common thing they talk about is being able to make the right adjustment quickly because of your preparation,” Boykin said. “I'm getting better at it, but I know I still have a ways to go.”

'LOVE FOR THE GAME'

It’s funny, people say, about how life turns out. We may imagine having a certain career for 50 years. Or we may have no idea what type of work we want to do.

In college, Boykin was a successful basketball player fueled by talent, dedication and hard work.

All these years later, he admits he never saw it coming -- he never expected to have a lengthy career in the pros.

“I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I would have first played basketball professionally overseas, let alone coach,” Boykin says now. “Social media was still in its infant stages when I graduated college in 2007; I had no idea guys were going overseas to play basketball. I thought it was NBA or nothing to say the least. But my oldest sister, Desi, told me I would be a coach when I stopped playing basketball because of my love for the game.

“When I was at NAU, Coach Adras and his staff of Rob Bishop, Ross Land and Billy Hix did prepare me a bit for what college coaching was like. We used to watch film of our practice as a team daily. We would have at least a 15- to 20-page scouting report for every game. But what I enjoyed the most was the one-on-one skill work and video breakdowns. When it was a one-on-one video meeting I felt like the coaches were really trying to encourage me and help me become a better player. And this is a technique I use to this day. I personally think it's a great way to gain trust and teach a player from the coaches perspective what they need to continue to do and what they need to work on.”

In Japan, it’s halfway around the world from his old college stomping grounds, but Ruben Boykin Jr.’s experience working for the Osaka Evessa has only strengthened his resolve to stick with what he knows -- and continues to learn.

“Five to 10 years from now,” he concluded, “I want to be a head coach at the pro level impacting players positively like the coaches that have impacted my basketball career.”

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