State of the game: Japanese hoops

By ED ODEVEN

Here, presented in detailed form, are various viewpoints on the state of Japan’s men’s basketball in 2011, and how the development of the sport can be enhanced.

Recent interviews shed some light on the challenges the sport faces to rise to the level of excellence that remains the top goal.

Osaka Evessa forward Lynn Washington, who has played in the bj-league and the JBL, spoke at length about the issue of Japan’s mediocre national team and how it compares to other national programs.

“I have done some research involving basketball in Eastern Europe back in the 60s,” said Washington, a two-time bj-league MVP and three-time title winner with the Evessa. “I was surprised to find out that a selection process was started to pick the tallest, fastest and most athletic children around. From there, dedication at its highest form to the game was exhibited by camps lasting for years at a time. Some high school, no college, just hoop. Wow!

“No wonder European basketball has caught up quick to American standards. Maybe something to that magnitude would help the national team. Now, I know most Japanese players are not physical specimens and that has a lot to do with the national team finishing near bottom in just Asia alone. However, when basketball is taken more seriously in Japan maybe aforesaid drastic measures will be taken to improve the national team.”

Hitachi forward Tyler Smith also offered in-depth insight during a recent interview.

Inquiry to Smith: From your perspective of what you hear and see, I am interested in your opinion of the pluses and minuses of both the JBL and bj-league in the 2010-11 season and in the context of the big picture as you see the sport in Japan now in comparison to other sports’ media exposure, marketability, fan interest, etc.

“Some of the positives of the JBL this season are that there are some highly talented and exciting Japanese players to watch,” he said. “Joji Takeuchi is a terrific player on our team (Hitachi) who can score in multiple ways, play great defense, and even have up to 20 rebounds on a given night. Other players such as (Takuya) Kawamura and (Yuta) Tabuse at Tochigi, Kosuke Takeuchi at Aisin, Kei Igarashi at Mitsubishi — all these guys bring that excitement and flare to the game which people love to see.

“Another positive of the JBL is that the league is pretty well balanced. The games are so competitive and there isn’t a single easy game on anyone’s schedule. Even when a team is lower in the standings, it really doesn’t mean anything once you step out on that floor as you have to earn every win.

“I think a big thing that the JBL could improve on as a whole is the marketing part. We don’t see very many games on TV and there don’t seem to be a lot of newspaper articles from what I’ve seen. Some teams do a solid job marketing and have strong fan bases. But, overall I think that the media exposure could take some good steps forward. ”

He added: “The bj-league seems to do a terrific job of getting their communities involved with each of their teams. When teams visit different places such as schools, radio/TV shows, youth leagues, and other venues, it creates a buzz and leaves a strong impression with fans. When fans have a player that they’ve seen up close, it makes them more likely to want to see a game and become part of that team’s following.

“The bj-league has more TV games and more coverage in the media. They even have games available to watch online (BJTV), which is terrific. I think every game for both leagues should be available to watch online and it could be a revenue generator for the JBL as well.

“The bj-league seems to rely on the import players much more than the Japanese players as more imports are allowed on the court than in the JBL. I’m not sure which is the best scenario to be honest. I’ve seen leagues dominated by import players and the games are exciting, physical, and very athletic. But, the best way for the level of play to improve for the Japanese players is to make sure they get plenty of minutes. The JBL allows that to happen with just one import on the court.

“Over time, this certainly can be good for basketball in Japan. But maybe there needs to be a compromise if the two leagues end up joining.”

Inquiry continued…

Can you offer a few comments on the record that can be used to highlight what is good and bad and what are the real challenges both leagues face now? And how has the bj-league’s growth helped build a pathway for youth and development of the game as well?

“I think the JBL brings a high level of Japanese talent to the table that can be marketed really well, Smith said. “The bj-league has been very innovative and has worked really hard to gain more respectability year after year by bringing in higher quality imports with NBA experience and some big name coaches like Bob Hill, who also coached in the NBA.

“With the bj-league growing to so many more cities around Japan, it really spreads the game of basketball to more and more young people. So, I think it’s great that basketball is reaching more fans that will become attached to the game. It can only help young kids as they see their favorite players in action throughout the season.

“Any kid who has played basketball knows that after they watch a game, they want to go outside to see if they can mimic those same moves they saw their hero make in the game. Then they want to play on a team, wear a jersey, and enjoy the game with their friends.

“Since basketball is a team game, there are so many positive things the game can teach like teamwork, how to win, sacrifice, and discipline, how to accept coaching, and overcoming adversity. These are all things we want our kids to learn. So, my hope is that the more the pro sport of basketball grows in Japan through the JBL and bj-league, the bigger positive impact it will have on the young people throughout the country.

“The biggest challenge the two leagues face is the hot topic going around: How will the two leagues be able to mesh together? It’s certainly possible, but each side will have to be willing to sacrifice some things. I’m sure it won’t be easy since there is a lot of tradition in the JBL and each side will have their own perspective on how things should play out. But, I hope that the communication will be open and I look forward to seeing what happens.”

In addition, do you think the national team needs greater commitments to getting players overseas for colleges and hoop camps, too?

“It would be great to see the national team help some young players make it overseas to basketball camps and even college,” Smith said. “Personally, I learned a TON going to camps every summer as a young player in junior high and high school. I do know that (head coach) Tom Wisman and (assistant coach) Shunsuke Todo are working their tails off to take the national team to the next level.

“They are very smart guys who know the game and know how to build a great team and system.”

I know you’ve spoken about this before, but in terms of leadership at the Japan Basketball Associaton, how is this organization hindering or helping the growth of the sport? How much clout does the old-boys network have in keeping the status quo going and going and ….?

“It seems that the JBA is willing to be open-minded and try some new things to help the growth of the sport,” Smith said. “For example, the fact that there is legitimate talk of joining the two leagues is interesting. And now that the bj-league Japanese players are eligible for the national team just makes sense. Overall, it’s hard for me to talk about the leadership of the JBA as I don’t really interact with them.”

***

Jun Okayama, a prominent street-ball organizer who has traveled extensively around the globe, believes the JBA needs a more progressive approach to the sport, emphasizing the need for grassroots support.

“(In the United States), if it’s the off-season, players go back home and play street court events,” Okayama said. “They appreciate home city (opportunities), but it doesn’t happen in Japan. The JBA has to be close to the government. They have to be close to prefecture and the city. Then the JBA can make events all over Japan.

“The JBA needs to manage the economics of basketball all over Japan. They have to make chances for the people to play basketball. The bj-league and JBL need to do more clinics for the area and they need to make some basketball courts.”

Okayama also stressed the need for national team players to participate in training camps and play in more exhibition games in the U.S., saying they need to study English and communicate and “learn about the world, not only basketball.”

Tokyo-based observer Masa Iida believes coaching fundamentals remains a weak point in Japanese basketball. He offered a few suggestions the JBA and both leagues ought to focus more attention on.

“National teams should start sending players overseas,” Iida said bluntly. “At the same time, they should send some coaching staffs overseas. There are so many players who can play, with a great potential, but they are lacking a coach who can guide them to a professional level or even to an international level. Former NBA players points out the lack of fundamentals within Japanese players. The national team would be much better if the coaching in Japan improves.”

Iida, though, does believe there have been some smart, calculated decisions in recent years.

“Akita is one of Japan’s hottest basketball areas, and the fans being able to have a professional team there is great,” he said, speaking about the prefecture where longtime stars Makoto Hasegawa and Yuta Tabuse spent their formative years at Noshiro Technical High School. “The Happinets are drawing a lot of interest from the people in Akita, which makes them one of the elite teams in attendances.”

* * *

Bob Pierce, the Akita coach, mentioned the JBL’s instability as a major factor in the structural problems of the league, which has long been organized by the JBA since the 1960s. He cited the 13 JBL teams that have dropped out of the league over the past 15 years an eye-opening example of this.

“The JBA probably needs to get out of the business of running a league because they don’t do it very well,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sadachika Yoshioka, a London-based director for the International Basketball League, helped organized the Japan Basketball Academy’s 2009 team in the IBL, Nippon Tornadoes. The club played its entire short-season schedule in the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the U.S. It was a good measuring stick for the player and coaching staff.

The Tornadoes did not field a team in the IBL last summer and there’s no talk at this point about a 2011 squad, but there are benefits to expanded opportunities for overseas competition, Yoshioka, acknowledged.

“There are three options Japan has,” Yoshioka said in a recent interview. “One is to be stronger. How can it be measured? Well … (to reach) the Olympics in London in 2012, I know to be a champion is a tall order. But they can still aim at one of top, say, four or eight. Without being strong, it is not interesting for fans or sports experts to watch and follow games.

“To me, nothing attracts me. In the world of NBA, NFL, MLB or European football (soccer), people cannot live with them. But Japanese people can live without JBL or the bj-league This is the big difference.

“Second is to export great players to the NBA. This option triggers decentralization of good players at home. However, this continues to be the easiest way to attract the world’s attention from the view point of money, resource and time. Japan already tried this option, as you may recall Yuta Tabuse. He is without the doubt a great player. If we could ask for more, what people want is outstanding results like Ichiro (Suzuki) in Major League Baseball. (Tochigi scoring ace Takuya) Kawamura was exported two years ago (for NBA Summer League drills). I agree with that approach. Both the commissioner of the International Basketball League and I hope it would work, However, the NBA stood too tall.

“Third is to import great players from the NBA. As NBA is beginning to lose interest in Japanese market given expanding markets in Europe and China, it is we who need to take initiatives in attracting good players as well as the world’s attention. In order to do this, it will require change of our JBL rules, not to mention costs to invite such players.”

In short, Yoshioka believes Japan needs to come up with a plan and stick with it. Embracing old ways, though, wouldn’t be wise, he cautions.

“We do not have time to stick to our traditions,” Yoshioka said. “We always need to remain hungry and flexible in order to acquire any favorable paths. One thing good about the current national team is that they have good coaches: Thomas Wisman is known as a legendary in several Asian countries; and Shunsuke Todo, who used to play in the NCAA (Division III Rowan University) as well as having ample experiences as a coach in the JBL. My personal view is that Japan should seek one step further by hiring someone as an additional skill coach from the U.S. who has experiences at both the NCAA and NBA, so that Japan can aim at truly international levels.”

* * *

Feedback on this article is appreciated.

Send comments to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp

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