Hawaii men’s basketball: Jesse Nakanishi embraces assistant duties on staff

Director of operations and acting UH assistant coach Jesse Nakanishi watched the Rainbow Warriors during the second half against San Francisco on Friday. / Photo by Cindy Ellen Russell, Star-Advertiser

“Next man up, every man up” has been a mantra of the Hawaii men’s basketball team for the entirety of Eran Ganot’s tenure as head coach of the Rainbow Warriors.

That was proven true in an unusual and unexpected way over the first month of the 2019-20 season. When Ganot stepped away from the program on Nov. 6, two days before the season opener for unspecified medical leave, it caused a domino effect.

Chris Gerlufsen, who was hired by Ganot to replace associate head coach Adam Jacobsen in early September, became the acting head coach. The ripples didn’t stop there, as a hole opened among the assistants. Jesse Nakanishi, the second-year director of basketball operations, was the logical choice to step into that gap on a temporary basis. That, in turn, put almost the full DOBO responsibilities on Dominic Drury, who’d been promoted to assistant DOBO from graduate manager in the offseason.

“It’s about what’s best for the team, and just finding little niches, here and there, how you can make others better,” Nakanishi, who had coaching experience at the high school and Division II levels, said in late November. “So that’s what I’ve tried to do. Helping with rebounding, helping with drills, helping a lot with film, scouting reports. However much I can help in whatever different ways.”

That’s been emblematic of the staff-wide effort to shore up the absence of a key man, a program figurehead. And it’s been noticed and appreciated by the ones who directly decide the outcome of games.

“It makes us, the players, play harder when the coaches are working as hard as they do,” said center Dawson Carper, who noted that the coaches were lost in film study on the way back from the team’s November trip to Illinois.

UH received a waiver from the NCAA for the shifting responsibilities on staff. It has succeeded, by and large, through the changes. It is 6-2 heading into Saturday’s daunting road trip to No. 13 Oregon.

Among the duties thrust upon Nakanishi he’d not previously done at the Division I level were on-court coaching during practices and scouting report assignments for upcoming opponents. Under normal circumstances, directors of operations are not allowed to recruit, participate in on-court drills and scrimmages during practices, or scout foes, instead focusing on matters such as team travel and community outreach.

For Nakanishi, the new workload represents a logical progression up the coaching ladder. He’s been a state champion head coach at his alma mater Kamehameha, a successful top assistant under Darren Vorderbruegge at Hawaii Pacific, and a one-year D-ops at Seattle University prior to coming back to the islands for the UH DOBO job.

Then-Kamehameha head coach Jesse Nakanishi celebrated with his team after winning the HHSAA Division I title against ‘Iolani on Feb. 19, 2011. / Star-Advertiser file photo by Jamm Aquino

Scouting reports have loomed the largest. Typically, upcoming opponents are divided up among the three assistants for advance video scouting, then the whole staff collaborates on a specific team as game day looms.

“It’s hours and hours of film. So that’s been a big thing I’ve spent a lot of time on,” Nakanishi said.

He had Pacific (a 72-67 UH win) and San Francisco (an 85-75 UH win). Against previously unbeaten USF, UH schemed to limit the up-tempo Dons’ looks in transition.

“Coach Nak made a great scout team and they prepared us good,” forward Zigmars Raimo said after the win over the Dons. “We just trusted the coaches, trusted what they said and we (got) the win.

“(Nakanishi) did a great job. All credit to him. … It was his second. He’s 2-for-0, 100 percent so far.”

After the same game, to a question about Nakanishi, Gerlufsen turned to Drew Buggs on the postgame interview podium and asked the point guard rhetorically, “How amped up was Jesse before the game?” Buggs nodded.

“Jesse has worked his butt off since Coach Ganot has coach gone on medical leave,” Gerlufsen said. “He’s had to elevate his position and his responsibilities and he’s done a heck of a job for us. He had us prepared, he had a great game plan, he made sure guys knew what USF was gonna do. Can’t say enough about the job he did in terms of getting us ready to play. It was a collective team effort. John Montgomery did a heck of a job with the defensive scout. Jabari Trotter handles our rebounding, and we were on the plus side for the rebounding battle again. It was just a collective team effort from top to bottom.”

Nakanishi, too, made sure to spread credit to the entire operation — including to Drury, who’s taken over travel arrangements, and to Ganot, the man who brought him in. The shifts have trickled in some form or fashion to the graduate managers, Gibson Johnson and Jack Rydquist, too.

“Dominic has been amazing, taking a lot of the travel and the 100-year celebration and those things we’re trying to do,” Nakanishi said. “I feel like credit goes to Coach Ganot, because he set this program up to run on its own, with all of our moving parts here. We really haven’t skipped a beat, too much, I feel because he’s done that for us. We all knew our roles coming into this, so we’ve all worked hard to complete our roles, and more. Same thing we asked our guys to do — do your role. That’s all we’ve done as a staff.”

Nakanishi recently channeled his boss, Ganot, in heading up an upcoming Coaches vs. Cancer fundraiser initiative. All eight head coaches in the upcoming Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic will appear, speak and mingle at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort reef bar on Dec. 20 from 7-9 p.m. Tickets are $125 each, with all proceeds going to the American Cancer Society and Honolulu Hope Lodge.

“Cancer has hit our team in a lot of ways, with all of our respective families, coaches and players. Each have been touched by cancer,” Nakanishi said. “This is a big thing for us and it’s a big thing for Coach Ganot. It’s carrying on just like our team is carrying on as normal.”

Spoken like a seasoned coach.

On that subject, there’s been no word on when Ganot will return. There are only a handful more games (including the DHC) before conference play begins. Every game, every week of preparation is more work for an undermanned staff.

But the opportunity that comes with that is not lost on Nakanishi, who desires to be a Division I head coach someday.

“You try to relish in it and try to gain some experience, try to provide some value for this program however I can through my experiences,” he said. “Of course, it is my goal to be a head coach again one day, and I wanted to do it at the Division I level. So that’s why I made the move from Division II to ops in Division I. It’s all about trying to work to bigger goals. So this is a good experience for me, that I’m trying to make the most of.”


  1. H-Man December 3, 2019 5:26 am

    Best wishes to coach Ganot to return healthy and ready to lead his team.

  2. turfwar December 3, 2019 12:47 pm

    I’ve watched Jessie since his playing days at Kamehameha and the guy has been a winner and done things with class and hard work. We would be lucky to have him as the head coach someday.

  3. JetWavy December 3, 2019 6:49 pm


    I wouldn’t go that far to say we’d be lucky to have him as head coach. He wasn’t exactly bringing studs into HPU when he was the assistant at that program. Not sure he’s connected like that, especially for a D1 gig.

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