GINOWAN, Okinawa — Pick a sport, any sport, and the following is a guarantee: All-Star games are fun events for fans and players alike.
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO
Naturally, the fans relish the chance to see a large number of a league’s best players in the same building on the same day.
And, at the same time, the players enjoy the camaraderie that these showcase games offer them, as well as the chance to forget about the high-stakes pressure of winning their respective division or making the playoffs for a few days.
NBA fans have their favorite All-Star moments, going back to the days of Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain, to the glory years of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to the present era of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.
Now it’s the bj-league’s turn to start creating its special All-Star memories.
For Japan’s first professional hoops circuit, the bj-league, history will be made Saturday when its inaugural All-Star Game is held at Ginowan Municipal Gymnasium in Okinawa. Tipoff is 4 p.m. for the East vs. West matchup.
It’s a sign of maturation for the league, and it’s a clear sign that bj-league commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi is moving the circuit in the right direction.
Or as Tokyo Apache coach Joe Bryant said at a recent news conference: “It’s really a good moment in a sense that this league is growing in its second year.”
Six teams played last season, including the champion Osaka Evessa. The league welcomed two new clubs — the Takamastu Five Arrows and Toyama Grouses — to the fold this season.
Next season, a Fukuoka franchise and Okinawa outfit will field teams.
Each club has played 22 of its 40 regular-season games thus far. The Evessa remain the league’s top team, sporting a flashy 16-6 mark at the All-Star Break.
Osaka also has two All-Star starters: small forward Kazuya Hatano, a native of Brazil, and bruising power forward Lynn Washington, a former Indiana University player. Washington was the league MVP in 2005-06.
The West squad is comprised of players from Tokyo, Takamatsu, the Oita HeatDevils and Osaka.
The other Western starters are high-flying Apache shooting guard John “Helicopter” Humphrey, who had back-to-back 40-point games early this season, Oita point guard Yukinori Suzuki, and Five Arrows center Julius Ashby, who split his formative years between Trinidad and Tobago and New York City but has blossomed into a young star in Japan.
For the East team, the Niigata Albirex BB have three players in the starting lineup: point guard Makoto Hasegawa, who turns 36 in April, small forward Matt Garrison and center Nick Davis.
Toyama off-guard Takanori Goya, who was the No. 1 pick in last spring’s draft, and Sendai 89ers power forward Mamadou Diouf, a native of Senegal, round out the team’s starting five.
As is often the case in other pro leagues, fans selected the starters for the All-Star Game. The bj-league chose five reserves for each squad.
The West reserves are Takamatsu guards Yu Okada and Rasheed Sparks, Tokyo backcourt sparkplug Kohei Aoki, Osaka guard Masashi Joho and Oita big man Andy Ellis.
The East backups are Sendai guard Hikaru Kusaka, Niigata guard Naoto Kosuge, Saitama guard Taishiro Shimizu and Broncos teammate Gordon James, who epitomizes the power aspect of the power forward position, and Toyama center Jerod Ward.
Niigata Albirex coach Masaya Hirose earned the privilege of coaching the East team because his club was the league’s second-place team in the playoffs last spring, while Osaka Evessa’s Kensaku Tennichi, who was awarded the league’s Coach of the Year accolade last season, was picked to be the floor boss for the West squad.
The assistant coaches both come from playoff teams a year ago.
Sendai 89ers coach Honoo Hamaguchi will help Hirose. Bryant, whose son Kobe stars for the Los Angeles Lakers, will stay busy dishing out his hoops expertise to Tennichi on the West bench.
Even before the 20 All-Stars made preparations for their journeys to Okinawa, Bryant took a few moments last Sunday to ponder the state of the league.
He commended all the teams for their active involvement in their communities and their commitment to grassroots development of the sport.
“Really, the big picture is, sure we like to win games,” Bryant said, “but if you take a look at the whole (picture) and the things we are trying to do in the different communities (and) in the difference cities . . . I think that’s the most important thing right now.”
Now 20 first-time All-Stars will be on the hardwood on Saturday, representing their teams, their hometowns and their prefectural boosters with no-look passes and reverse layups, fadeaway jumpers and (George) Gervin-esque finger rolls and plenty of fundamental plays, too.
For a new generation of basketball fans and players in Japan, Saturday’s showcase is a win-win situation.
IN THE PAINT: All-Star festivities also include the Slam Dunk Contest and the 3-Point Shootout.
The former features the high-flying, rim-rattling antics of Saitama’s James, Tokyo’s Tony “Get It” Jones, Sparks and Ward. The latter contest comprises top-notch perimeter marksmen Hasegawa, Garrison, Goya, Joho, Okada and Ellis.
The skills competitions will be held before the East vs. West showdown.
ON THE TUBE: BS Fuji is airing today’s game at 4 p.m.
bj-league All-Star rosters
(Statistics after 22 games)
Makoto Hasegawa (Niigata guard) — 9.5 ppg, 41, rebounds, 54 assists, 83% free-throw shooting.
Takanori Goya (Toyama guard) — 9.1 ppg, 56 rebounds, 58 assists, 20 steals.
Matt Garrison (Niigata forward) — 14.0 ppg, 136 rebounds, 55 assists, 37 3-pointers.
Mamadou Diouf (Sendai forward) — 16.4 ppg, 239 rebounds, 63 assists, 34 steals, 13 double-doubles.
Nick Davis (Niigata center) — 18.8 ppg, 322 rebounds, 28 assists, 33 blocked shots, 10 games with 20 or more points. Reserves
Hikaru Kusaka (Sendai guard) — 8.9 ppg, 46 rebounds, 75 assists, 31 steals, 14 games with three or more steals.
Naoto Kosuge (Niigata guard) — 7.0 ppg, 49 rebounds, 31 assists, 28 steals, 30 3-pointers.
Taishiro Shimizu (Saitama guard) — 9.8 ppg, 47 rebounds, 74 assists, 20 steals, 22 3-pointers.
Jerod Ward (Toyama center) — 25.1 ppg, 235 rebounds, 32 steals, 28 blocks, 13 double-doubles, eight games with 30 or more points.
Gordon James (Saitama forward) — 16.7 ppg, 322 rebounds, 42 blocks, 20 double-doubles.
John “Helicopter” Humphrey (Tokyo guard) — 25.7 ppg, 142 rebounds, 42 steals, 24 blocks, nine games with 30 or more points.
Yukinori Suzuki (Oita guard) — 10.1 ppg, 56 assists, 16 steals, 82.1 % free-throw shooting.
Kazuya Hatano (Osaka forward) — 8.3 ppg, 107 rebounds, 20 assists, 11 steals.
Lynn Washington (Osaka forward) — 22.5 ppg, 230 rebounds, 68 assists, 22 steals, 15 blocks, 55.2% 2-point shooting, 81.3% free-throw shooting, 13 double-doubles.
Julius Ashby (Takamatsu center) — 17.5 ppg, 230 rebounds, 34 assists, 25 steals, 28 blocks, 54.6% 2-point shooting, 12 double-doubles.
Yu Okada (Takamatsu guard) — 11.9 ppg, 44 assists, 22 steals, 64 3-pointers, 11 games with three or more 3-pointers.
Kohei Aoki (Tokyo guard) — 8.3 ppg, 42 assists, 33 steals, 85.4% free-throw shooting, nine games with two or more steals.
Masashi Joho (Osaka guard) — 7.0 ppg, 29 rebounds, 19 steals, 27 3-pointers.
Andy Ellis (Oita forward/center) — 22.0 ppg, 204 rebounds, 34 assists, 78.3% free-throw shooting, 37 3-pointers, 14 games with 20 or more points.
Rasheed Sparks (Takamatsu guard) — 13.1 ppg, 165 rebounds, 108 assists, 60 steals, 53 3-pointers, 12 games with five-plus assists.