Gibson beginning another coaching venture in Finland

Greg Gibson, a 1987 Central High School graduate, was named the new head coach of Kataja Basket, a professional basketball team in Finland, in June. Courtesy photo by Tytti Nuoramo

Greg Gibson said everything was going “quite OK” in the opening half of his sixth season as the head coach of the Finnish professional basketball team Loimaa Bisons. Then the rumors began to swirl.

In mid-January, said Gibson, a 1987 graduate of Central High School, word began to spread that the Bisons were running into financial trouble. On Feb. 1, team general manager Ari Hannula affirmed the Bisons’ declining financial situation in a meeting with players and team personnel, Gibson said, informing those in attendance that they would need to take a 33-percent pay cut or they were free to sign elsewhere in Finland or Europe without any kind of buyout from the Bisons.

“Of course when I heard this I knew there was no way anyone was going to stay,” Gibson wrote in an email earlier this week.

Indeed, Loimaa saw its four American-born players draw offers from teams all over Europe and two of the team’s Finnish players left for some of Finland’s top teams, Gibson said. Gibson himself considered stepping down midseason, he said, but in the end remained with the Bisons through the end of the season in April out of courtesy to the remaining players and the fans.

Gibson’s coaching career will continue in Finland this fall, although he will be roaming a different sideline. The former Central High School basketball standout was hired as the head coach of Kataja Basket on June 3.

“I consider it a very exciting step!” Gibson wrote. “Kataja is a club that I have always had the utmost respect for. Kataja has been one of the most consistent clubs in all of Finnish sports and I am very fortunate and honored to be their new head coach.”

Kataja, located in Joensuu, Finland, on the country’s eastern border, has competed in the Korisliiga – Finland’s top professional basketball league – for a total of 21 seasons, including from 2001-present. Kataja won the Korisliiga championship in 2015 (by beating Gibson and the Bisons in the finals), has reached the championship finals six times and made the playoffs 14 times since rejoining the Korisliiga in 2001.

Last season Kataja was 30-10 in the Korisliiga regular season and fell in four games to BC Nokia in the first round of the playoffs.

Gibson, who began his international coaching career in Finland with Kauhajoki about 12 years ago, said he had a “short discussion” about possibly coaching Kataja a few years ago.

“The timing was just right now,” wrote Gibson, who said the only downside to the change is he’s building a house in Tampere about four hours from Joensuu, which will mean extended periods away from his family. “I really like the fundamental beliefs of Kataja. They think a lot the way that I do and I can’t wait to get started. Our Finnish talent will be very good led by captain/point guard Teemu Rannikko (the Korisliiga 2015 MVP). I just got back two weeks ago from Las Vegas where my search began for my import players. I am now hoping we can get the right kind of imports to fit in with the quality Finns we already have.”

Gibson enjoyed tremendous success in Loimaa during his six seasons with the Bisons. In his first year as head coach in 2010-11, Gibson led the Bisons to the second-division championship, a feat that awarded Loimaa a spot in the Korisliiga. (The top team in Finland’s second division each year earns a spot in the Korisliiga, while the last-place team in the Korisliiga is demoted.)

The next season, Gibson led the Bisons to a Korisliiga championship and became the first non-European to win the league’s Coach of the Year honor. Loimaa followed that with another Korisliiga title in 2013 and earned inclusion into the VTB United League a year later.

Gibson said the Bisons were in second place in the Korisliiga and one game out of a playoff spot in the VTB when the team was informed of the financial crisis. (Gibson said players and staff didn’t receive their last few months’ worth of salaries, while the Finnish Basketball Associated has since revoked Loimaa’s license to join the league next year).

Gibson said the Bisons went 6-20 over their final 26 combined games between the Korisliiga and VTB last season.

“One of the most disappointing things was/is never knowing where this team could have ended up both in the Finnish League and the VTB League,” Gibson wrote. “I really liked our chances but that all came crashing down. From that point of the season, coaching was kind of put on the back burner as I tried to stay positive with the remainder of the guys who were sticking it out with Bisons.”

In addition to Korisliiga play, which includes 36 regular season games, Kataja will compete in the newly formed Champions League this season, Gibson said. Qualification games for the group stage of the Champions League – which will include 49 teams from 31 countries – begins on Sept. 27, and the Korisliiga regular season starts in October.

Kataja begins training camp later this month, Gibson said.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com