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Reflections from the Land of the Rising Sun

Cavs Assistant Antonio Lang Looks Back on His Memorable Days in East Asia

Reflections from the Land of the Rising Sun

Cavs Assistant Antonio Lang Looks Back on His Memorable Days in East Asia

At just 47-years-old, Cavaliers assistant coach Antonio Lang has already lived a lifetime’s worth.

The valedictorian at his high school in Mobile, Alabama, Lang went on to win back-to-back NCAA National Championships with Duke in 1991 and ’92. Was drafted by the Phoenix Suns and traded to Cleveland – (along with Dan Majerle in the Hot Rod Williams deal) – playing 115 games with Mike Fratello’s squad.

Lang also had NBA stops with the Heat, Raptors and Sixers. And he spent some time in the Continental Basketball Association with Indiana, Fort Wayne and Connecticut.

In 2001, Lang began his overseas career – playing for the Red Bull Thunder in the Philippines Basketball Association. Later that year, he began his 13-year odyssey in Japan – playing for (then becoming the head coach of) – the Mitsubishi Melco Dolphins.

Lang retired from playing in 2006, working his way up the Dolphins’ bench, taking his team to the playoffs in his final season overseas in 2013-14.

Later that year, he was hired by former Dukie, Quin Snyder to join his bench in Utah – reaching the Playoffs in each of the Jazz's last three seasons. And this past summer, he joined John Beilein’s staff here with the Wine & Gold.

Of all those journeys, his days in the Land of the Rising Sun may have shaped what he is today. And Coach Lang took a moment recently to sit with and talk about that seminal experience …

One of Antonio Lang's four NBA stops was with Mike Fratello's Cavaliers in the mid-90s.
Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Was there a huge culture shock when you first got to Japan, and why did you choose to play there?

Antonio Lang: Well, I played in the Philippines before that. It's English-speaking, but still a different culture. Different foods, most things. It was my first time being around a different culture.

And I've always been excited about going to Japan. I mean, when I was young – this is crazy – I used to watch this samurai, Zatoichi – “the Blind Swordsman.”

So, I've always had this thing where I wanted to go to Japan. But once I got there, the thing that was really hard for me was that no one spoke English in the city that I was in.

What city was that?

Lang: Nagoya. That's where I was the whole time.

Nagoya is right in-between Osaka and Tokyo.

Was language the biggest obstacle?

Lang: Yeah, that was the hardest thing. You’re going into a restaurant and you’re unable to read the menu. (You’re) having to always depend on the translator for pizza, for everything.

The first thing I remember is that I couldn't work my microwave because I couldn't read it.

So I had a guy come by and put a piece of tape on everything in my house and write what it meant in English; everything so it let me know exactly what did what. I'm talking, like, the washing machine. On and Off switches. Simple things!

Was there a moment when you realized you needed to finally learn the language?

Lang: One time I went out to eat late after the game, and I got called downtown. I called my translator, he didn't answer the phone. And I didn't have a way home. I couldn't pronounce my address to the cabbies. I ended up walking home, about an hour walk.

After that I said: It's time to start learning Japanese.

Did you ever think about just calling it quits?

Lang: No. Because I had a wife and two kids back at home and they needed to eat.

Did you have support from back home?

Lang: You know, my family came over. They were there, three months at a time – and they helped me get through it. Through a lot of tough times.

But it's always been that way.

So how did you learn the language?

Lang: So, I tore my Achilles and I came home.

I was back at South Alabama, where my wife went to school. I was rehabbing my Achilles and one day I saw a group of Japanese students together in the cafeteria. And, at the time, I was losing my mind, wondering: Am I gonna be able to play the game again?

This was my second year there and I was thinking: Let me find something to, you know, keep me in it. So, I went to the group and asked them if they would tutor me in Japanese.

So three times a week I'd meet with the exchange students – and I paid them for it. And I had to write what they call a nikki, which is basically a diary. Just everyday stuff like: 'I woke up this morning and had a headache.'

"I was a hell-raiser before I went there, and it taught me patience; it taught me to respect people and respect what they think."

Antonio Lang, on how the experience in Japan changed him.

I had to memorize hiragana, katakana. Then I started learning kanji. That's just three different ways of writing, and it really helped me a lot.

And how did that change things?

Lang: It was unbelievable! And especially once the Japanese see that you're trying to learn the culture and trying to learn their language.

I went from having tunnel-vision to being completely wide-eyed about everything!

I started noticing things – finding places where I wanted to eat. I could catch a bus, a train, go anywhere.

How was your relationship with the players?

Lang: They wanted to learn English, so I used to take the younger guys out to eat and I told them I'd pay for their meal if they only speak Japanese to me and let me speak Japanese.

And they were like: OK, cool. Then they were like: We can go out again -- and Tony, you can pay for the meal again and this time we'll all speak English. (Laughs)

But communication is the big key to everything. Wars have been started because people miscommunicated or they translated something wrong.

Sometimes things get lost in translation, so you'd better be able communicate to each other. And I thought for me to be a good teammate, I had to be able communicate.

And then, of course, they taught me all the bad words! And they messed with me and told me all the wrong stuff -- like we do sometimes when foreign players come here.

Aside from the language, what were the cultural differences on the court?

Lang: Japan's real, as we know, it's rigid. And I don't think that's bad. You just do things a certain way – and sometimes it spilled onto the court.

You have this this thing in Japanese called senpai and kohai. If you're older than me, you're senpai and if you're younger than me, you're kohai.

So, my first year there we were practicing and these guys went to the same school or whatever, and the kohai – which is the younger kid, was guarding the senpai real hard – just guarding him. And the senpai just grabbed the ball and was like: Yamete kure mo!"Stop it!" – and the younger guy just stopped guarding him.

And he wouldn't guard him for the next week or so! (Laughs)

That was interesting. And now it's changed.

But when I first got there, some of the Japanese guys would get subbed and they would go to halfcourt, turn their back to the crowd and bow to the guys sitting on the sideline.

How did you adjust to the cultural differences – especially as head coach?

Lang: When I went to practice, and the guys were loud and chattering, I was good. When I walked in and they didn't say a word, I was scared. I thought I was gonna lose my job or that something was wrong.

And sometimes it's hard to communicate with Japanese players because of that. They've been taught their whole life that silence is a sign of strength.

So my hardest thing as a player and as a coach was to get guys to talk. But when I came back to America, it was the same thing. So, it's not really a Japanese thing. Kids just don't talk – unless you get them together and they're playing music.

Even with a solid knowledge of the language, how much did you rely on your translator as coach?

Lang: Sometimes guys use different words, and that's when I understood: you don't translate word-for-word.

My translator over there, Andy, told me an important thing: He said: I don't translate words; I translate culture. The way they see it.

How did you deal with the refs?

Lang: I was good enough to get Techs from the referees because I would go at them in Japanese! (Laughs)

It was weird because they put in a rule that translators couldn't stand up. We were at (a league meeting) and my translator said: ‘Are you sure you don't want me to stand up? Because Tony knows Japanese and he doesn't really know any better.'

How did the Japanese experience affect you?

Lang: It changed me. (It was) one of the of the best experiences of my life. Best thing ever. It changed me.

It made me realize that sometimes, as Americans, we think we know everything, we have the right way. But you realize that there are some buildings over there that are older than America.

Respect what other people do and the how they do it and you might just enjoy the journey.

My wife may not agree with this, but I became a better listener. I was in a hurry to make everything be right before. Going over there, you learn a lot about patience and learning to let things happen and let things work out.

I mean, life's simple there. I get up, I go to work, bike to work, catch a train.

You realize that all this stuff that we have, we don't really need. When I got back, I started focusing on things that mattered and not the things that didn’t. It opened my eyes.

I was a hell-raiser before I went there, and it taught me patience; it taught me to respect people and respect what they think.

How did it prepare you to be a better coach when you got home?

Lang: One of the worst feelings in the world is trying to express something and you can't. You feel like you're trapped.

There were times when I was in Japan and I'd just scream because I couldn't get out certain things. And I felt like I was trapped.

And that relates to basketball.

Basketball is what we do. It's not who we are. And I think that when I'm out of basketball, what I'll miss more than anything else, it's not the game; it's the relationships that you make.

And it all goes to communication. You've got to be able to experience things to relate and talk to these guys. And I’ve experienced them.


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