In 1999, Tall Black Paul Henare took his first trip to China and played basketball against a young Yao Ming. Since then, Henare has played for and coached the Tall Blacks around the world, often in Asia. Late last year, he made the decision to move on from the Tall Blacks and took up a position coaching the Kagawa Five Arrows in Japan's Kagawa prefecture. AMC's Kirsty Sharp talks to him about his move and his experiences in Asia.
What was it like to experience and compete in China the first time you went?
As a young Hawke's Bay kid - I think I was 20 years old - it was eye-opening. We played in a town, up in the mountains - Luchang. I don't even know where it is geographically, but it was just this amazing historical town up in the clouds.
We played against China, against Yao Ming who was a young guy back then. At halftime, we came out of the changing rooms back into the gym, where it was full of smoke, because everybody was smoking inside.
After the game, it still smelled like smoke, and it was not pleasant. So that being my starting experience to where I see China now, I feel like it’s come a long way
Has the relationship you've established with China both as a player and a coach been beneficial for New Zealand basketball?
Absolutely. There were times when some players that have done multiple trips, it became a bit like, 'Oh, we've got China in our schedule again'. It almost became a drag, but the benefits for us were important. To be able to use those trips to prepare for our international campaigns, sometime up to two weeks, where we could train, play and prepare were invaluable.
Now that we're a part of FIBA Asia, in terms of the qualifying process, there are more regular trips. We go to Hong Kong to China to Korea, all over the place. Asia is a big part of our basketball lives.
What interested you in taking up your role coaching the Kagawa Five Arrows in Japan?
The Tall Blacks had just finished the 2019 FIBA World Cup and I was due to start work as an assistant coach with Melbourne United.
Spending an extended time in Japan, I got a good feeling about the culture, about the people. It sparked an interest for me and for where I was in my coaching career.
I hadn't planned on leaving the Tall Blacks, or even Melbourne but I started looking to the future in terms of ‘Where do my opportunities lie?'. I thought if one comes up in Asia - anywhere in Asia - then I'd seriously look at it.
I got lucky. Basketball New Zealand have a host city agreement with Atsugi, a city just 45 minutes south of Tokyo, an initiative from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. We were hosted there last year for a training camp and had two nationally televised games against the Japanese as part of our World Cup preparation. Then we played Japan in the World Cup and had a fantastic game. We beat them convincingly and me as a coach and our players as well, we became more well-known.
You started there in October 2019 – what was it like starting your role?
A little bit of an interesting circumstance for me - the season had already started, but the coach was fired before the season for discipline issues and they had an interim coach.
By the time I got there, the team was going really well, so from their point of view, they were thinking 'why are we making a change?' but from management's point of view, they were thinking long term.
Coming into a situation like that, I had to be mindful in terms of trying to pick up where they'd already started and slowly integrate myself into the team culture. I was learning about a different style of basketball, the league, new players, a new language. I jumped into the deep end but I think I survived it.
What sort of cultural differences have you come across in Japan in the sports world?
One of the unique things in team sport here is the cultural hierarchy in terms of respecting their elders, called senpai-kohai, which is learnt in schools through the sport system.
What we do in New Zealand sport is we encourage everybody to have a voice, to offer advice whether it be to staff, a coach or an elder team member.
Whereas in the Japanese culture, they're brought up to show respect to elders in everyday life. That follows through in sport. So, the guys are really respectful, but it can hold them back.
There are some players that could offer more but don't because they're a little bit lower in terms of the hierarchy.
Trying to manage that environment and encourage a different way of thinking can be a challenge.
What did COVID do to your season?
Long story short, it cancelled it about a month out.
The league, which is 60 games across the season, was initially suspended for two weeks, when we had about a quarter of our games left.
Then we started up again, played a weekend of games, and they suspended it again, because team management in another club were diagnosed with COVID-19.
About a week and a half later, they decided they were going to cancel the whole thing and it really ended abruptly - rightly so.
You pulled Kiwi basketballer Rob Loe over to help the team out this year. What did he do during COVID-19?
He arrived right as the league was suspended the first time. We played one game with him, before he made the personal decision to come back and be with his family.
This was without even knowing that the league would be cancelled. It was unfortunate, the way it turned out, but there were millions of others affected in the same way.
So COVID, what does it mean for you? What have you been doing?
In terms of what it's done for me and my family, it's been outstanding. I did my two weeks quarantine and went to the Hawke's Bay, which is our family's home base while I'm overseas.
For me, to be at home 24/7 and be a husband and a dad through lockdown was fantastic.
From a work point of view, I've been able to work remotely, to construct the team, sign players, recruit guys, plan for the preseason, things like that.
The season starts again in October and I'm due back in August, travel restrictions and border restrictions permitting.
One piece of advice for the younger Paul Henare?
Understanding that I played basketball because I loved it, I never expected I could make a career from it.
So my advice would be take care of your body, train smarter, and always look to be the best version of yourself.
I have been lucky, though believe the more you commit yourself to being the best version of yourself, the more opportunities open up.
International experience is important. There can only be benefits in gaining experience in Asia, its closeness. It’s on our back doorstep and there is so much going on for players, coaches, and officials. There are more and more people from NZ and Australia taking up opportunities in Asia and this exposure will be good for our game in New Zealand.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
- Asia Media Centre