Coaching during Covid: Basketball coach Paul Henare on his time in Japan

Ex-Tall Blacks coach Paul Henare has certainly had an interesting time since he last spoke to the Asia Media Centre – in August 2020, he was on his way back to Japan to coach the Kagawa Five Arrows basketball team. Taking up the role in the Covid era came with its own trials – including an outbreak hitting the team – but it came with its own wins too. Henare reflects on his experiences now the season is over and he’s back in New Zealand.  

Last time we talked, you were in Waipukurau with your family, coaching via Zoom to a team that you had only met for a short period of time. What have you done since then? 

A lot it seems. I went back to Japan in August last year. As soon as the Japanese borders opened to visa holders, I jumped on the next flight, headed over and spent my two weeks in isolation in my apartment in Takamatsu. Then I got right into the preseason and the season. It's a 60-game season (although we had 57) so we stayed really busy. Our last game was about three weeks ago and we had some trials and tribulations throughout the year, but we got through.  

Paul Henare and the Kagawa Five Arrows on the court. Image: Kagawa Five Arrows

What was it like farewelling your whanau and going back to Japan? 

It was one of those things for me and my wife. We talked about how for us and our whanau, it's my job. We've all got to keep working in some way, shape or form and for me, it's coaching and basketball. So, once we got the okay to travel, I got back. Once you got through the isolation and back onto the court, it was reasonably normal. Takamatsu at that time had zero or very few Covid cases reported each day, so life was reasonably normal. 

How did your season go? 

This year, we missed out on the playoff by about two games. At the start of the season, because of visa issues, and our leading scorer Terrance Woodbury recovering from ACL surgery, we started without our imports playing and had one win and eight losses. We caught up and were actually in the top eight, ready for playoffs but we got hit with Covid.  

Ten of us from the squad got diagnosed with Covid-19, coming home from a road trip. We had to go into a quarantine between games. That's why we played 57 games because three of our games got cancelled.  

After that break, for athletes, sitting in a hotel for two weeks in the middle of a season is... not good. It's like caging a beast, then opening the cage and expecting what they were doing weeks ago. That's not possible. Our group stayed tight, we kept fighting and although we fell a bit short, I think it was a good season. We can have another crack at it next year. 

The Kagawa Five Arrows basketball team. Image: Kagawa Five Arrows

You mentioned several of you tested positive with Covid - were you one? 

Yeah, I was one of the ten. That was a worrying experience going through that, getting the testing done and getting ushered into a local hotel to isolate ourselves. But it was what we had to do and thankfully we all came through unscathed. 

It kicked my butt. I had a high fever for a few days and for about a week, I was under the weather. I lost my sense of smell totally. For the other guys, maybe because they're younger and fitter, it didn't seem to affect them much. For me, it was mainly a high fever and once that was under control, it wasn't too bad. 

When you were tested, did you think you were positive? 

Not at all. During the season, we were getting tested at the start of every two weeks. We were on a five-day road trip when it happened and the team we’d played against, their staff had tested positive. After that road trip, it was like, ‘we better get tested, see what's going on’. I felt fine for three or four days after we'd played that team, but it was on the night I got told I'd tested positive, that's when the fever kicked in.  

What was the season like? Especially in comparison to a normal season - what countermeasures were in place? 

As the season progressed, and the numbers started to go up, we went from optional mask-wearing to compulsory mask-wearing - even the players on the bench having to do that.  

The crowd numbers were limited to 50 percent capacity and we had regular PCR [polymerase chain reaction] testing through the league.  

Paul Henare and the view over Takamatsu city where he coaches the Kagawa Five Arrows. Image: Paul Henare

As the season went along, especially when we went on the road, it was like ‘stay in the hotel’. We encouraged guys to keep movements really, really tight.  

It's become the new normal, and the guys are good at rolling with the changes. Even with certain restrictions - I hated coaching with a mask on - it was not ideal, but I'm still coaching and the guys are still playing. When you think about it, you start to appreciate what we have in these times. 

As the coach, what were your wins for this season? 

We made real progress in terms of our club image. When we were healthy, we were a well-respected team. We competed with the best teams, we beat some of the best teams and we stayed tight as a group. I received positive feedback from other coaches who had a lot of respect for us. Overall, I think our club reputation made strides this season and for that I'm proud. 

You only worked with Kagawa Five Arrows for a short time last year before returning home. How comfortable are you now in your role as head coach? 

The first time I went there it was a total unknown, but going back, there were a lot of familiar faces and surroundings, so it was work as usual. The more the guys got to know me last season, the more comfortable they felt with me, and I felt that connection as soon as I got back.  

A shrine from Takamatsu. Image: Paul Henare

You’ve talked before about the cultural differences in sport between New Zealand and Japan, including the concept of senpai-kohai and the difficulties of getting younger team members to speak up in a hierarchical system. Have you been able to overcome that? 

That's a tough nut to crack. It's so ingrained in their cultural and sporting system; I don't know if that could ever be cracked totally. It's one of those things you consistently work on: you find opportunities for guys to speak up. Several times this year, when we’d come in for a team film session, I would hand the reins to a couple of players and make them take the meeting, to get them out of their comfort zone. Most of the time when those guys talked, the team listened. Hopefully, that was an empowering experience for them to hear their own voice. 

What's on your list for when you get home? 

Just spend every moment with the family. It's been tough being away from them, so I'm just going to hold my kids and hug my wife and not go anywhere for however long I'm back. I'll just be a dad and a husband. 

What are your plans as far as returning to Japan? 

Right now, I've been spending time doing season reviews - I met with all the players after the season and started that process and now it's all about recruiting and planning for next year. That can all be done online and at this stage, the season is set to start in October, so I imagine getting back there sometime in August. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity

Banner image credit: Kagawa Five Arrows

 - Asia Media Centre