New Heights

Former Nittany Lion hoops standout Tom Hovasse led the Japanese women to an unprecedented Olympic final.

Japan's olympic women's basketball team

Tom Hovasse was a hit on the post-Olympic TV circuit in Japan. He appeared on news shows and comedy shows, the former to explain how he coached the Japanese women’s basketball team to an unprecedented silver-medal finish in Tokyo, and the latter to be a good sport. Hovasse ’89 Bus is something of a novelty in Japan, a 6-foot-8 white man who speaks fluent Japanese in a decidedly non-Japanese manner.

“The media here had a field day with me being angry at the girls but speaking very politely in Japanese,” Hovasse says. “Typically, Japanese coaches are very vocal, very strict. I’m a very passionate coach, and when I get mad, I get mad, but I try to be as polite as possible when I’m doing it.”

An assistant coach on the Japanese team that finished eighth in Rio, Hovasse was named head coach in 2017. (Editor's Note: Hovasse was named the head coach of the Japanese men's basketball team in September). His mission: Craft a contender from a program that had qualified for only four previous Olympic games and never placed better than fifth. He took inspiration from the evolution of the NBA and U.S. men’s college game, installing a system that emphasized aggressive defense and a mix of spacing and shooting on offense, all meant to maximize his players’ impressive work ethic and minimize their lack of size.

They went 4–2 in Tokyo, with both losses coming to a U.S. team loaded with WNBA stars, five of whom stand 6-foot-3 or taller. Hovasse, whose starting center was out injured, didn’t have a player taller than 6-foot-1. The U.S. cruised to gold with a 90–75 win in the final, claiming its seventh straight Olympic title. But even after falling short, Hovasse believes in his system, and in those players, more than ever.

“The Olympics were just a shadow of what we could do,” he says. “Our first goal was to beat the Americans and win the gold medal, and we believed we could. The second goal was to create a standard of basketball here, and I think we did that. We’ve learned we are good enough to beat the best in the world.”