Yasuhiro Ohba tightens his shoe laces before taking the court, and checks the grip with the wooden floor so he can perform his best.
Did he have the same attitude last season? Yes, because it was the bj-league’s inaugural season and he had to prove he can play this game.
But the Tokyo Apache forward is bracing himself even more now.
The reason? There will be real, relentless competition this season on the squad.
Last April, head coach Joe Bryant said during the bj-league playoffs that he gave equal opportunities to his players because every member needed to gain the same experience in the new league.
This year, it’s different.
Bryant has said all of his players would have to compete for playing time and better players would be added to the squad.
“This year, you have to earn your time,” Bryant said. “That means you have to practice well, and perform well in the game as well.”
It is a bona-fide challenge for the Japanese players, because they lack the height, bulk and, more importantly, professional experience of their foreign teammates.
As the season draws closer — the Apache open the season Nov. 4 against the reigning champion Osaka Evessa at their home arena, Ariake Colosseum — the team’s Japanese players have becoming increasingly aggressive yet brave on the court, as evidenced by their jump shots and slashing to the rim to create offensive chances.
Last season, the team relied heavily on two of its foreign powers, John “Helicopter” Humphrey and William Pippen, who combined for a large percentage of the team’s points and rebounds. The Japanese players were only able to follow them. But this season must be different.
“There’s a lot of pressure on my shoulders,” said Ohba, a 198-cm forward. “Especially at my position, most of our foreign players are there. So I’ve been thinking how I should survive in it.”
The Apache, whose weak point was rebounding last season, have acquired Michael Jackson from the Sendai 89ers, and Jeremee McGuire and Nick Billings, who stand at 210 cm and 214 cm, respectively, during offseason tryouts.
Despite these changes, Ohba isn’t expressing overwhelming optimism or pessimism about the upcoming season.
Ohba, who turned 28 on Monday, concentrated on gaining muscle during the summer, when he worked out in the weight room. By doing so, he hopes to be better prepared to compete against the league’s stronger foreign players.
“I got two to three centimeters thicker in every part of my body,” he said.
Meanwhile, his outlook will be the same as Junpei Nakama’s.
The 23-year-old Nakama admitted he was never complacent last season.
“I was playing, thinking I would be fired any time,” Nakama said. “It will be the same this year as well. Not that I did not practice hard last year because I knew I would get some playing time.”
Pippen, who was the league’s third-leading scorer with 22.1 points per game last season, did not return for the 2006-07 season. That said, Nakama dismissed the idea that Pippen’s departure would create additional opportunities for Japanese players.
“I think we Japanese players will be driven into a predicament,” Nakama said.
“Because there are only two foreign players that could really play and Japanese players were almost assured to occupy the rest of the three spots last season. But we have four foreigners that can play and it’s going to be tougher for us this year.”
In terms of a challenge, guard Kohei Aoki may have the biggest one of all.
Aoki, listed at 167 cm, is the shortest player in the bj-league. But his game and heart are not small.
Aoki hurt his left ankle early last season, but he came back and played before the injury was healed fully. So he, like Ohba, spent lots of time in the weight room in the offseason.
“I recognize I couldn’t play as I wanted to,” said Aoki, who notched the league’s best free-throw percentage (86.4 percent) last season.
Aoki appreciates that he was able to make his professional debut in the bj-league last season and Bryant gave everybody playing time so he gained precious experience.
But he said there is no surprise about Bryant’s handling of the players and their roles this season.
“We all know that Joe gave us the special circumstances,” the 25-year-old Aoki said. “So hearing about the change, we’re not particularly surprised and think it is so natural.
“Last season, we were gifted to gain experience, so this season we need to have some (consistent results).”
On the other hand, Bryant sees his Japanese players as having curiosity about how they can live up to his expectations.
“I’m excited to see how all those players have improved and built more confidence,” Bryant said.
Asked what he wants to see from them this season, Bryant responded by saying, “I’m looking for a consistency where I can know before games that one or two of the Japanese players can give me 10 points, five rebounds and five assists in every game.”
TICKET PROMOTION: The Apache will give away a pair of tickets to 25 individuals for their first two games, Nov. 4 and 5, against the Osaka Evessa at Ariake Colosseum. All entrants must send a postcard with their name, address, age, phone number and which game you want to attend, to the following address: “Japan Times Apache tickets present” 6F, 8-8-5, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 104-0061. The postcard must be received by Oct. 27. Winners will be notified by mail.