Okinawan sky Starry on big Saturday

by Ed Odeven

GINOWAN, Okinawa Pref. — The hometown hero had the spotlight to himself. Well, at least for a few seconds; after all, this was a stars’ showcase.

News photoIn a rare slow moment, East guard Jerod Ward takes a breather during the East’s 126-97 win over the West
in the bj-league All-Star Game on Saturday in Okinawa. Ward, who scored 34 points, was named MVP.

Takanori Goya had a pair of slam dunks in the waning seconds of the East team’s 126-97 victory over the West squad in the inaugural bj-league All-Star Game before a packed house of 3,223 at Ginowan Municipal Gymnasium.

The fans roared with delight and the players on both benches applauded, too, as Goya, unguarded though he was, leaped and slammed the ball through the rim.

This much was certain: They were unforgettable dunks for Goya, the No. 1 pick in last spring’s bj-league draft, who plays for the expansion Toyama Grouses.

“Next time I want to dunk in a clutch-time situation,” said a grinning Goya, who scored 19 points and dished out nine assists.

Playing in front of the Okinawa fans was a big thrill, he added, saying he “felt very comfortable” out there.

“Today’s game is five minutes away by car (from my home),” he said.

It showed.

Goya, a microcosm of the future of the league — young, upbeat, talented — played with a contagious joy and a penchant for making things happen on Saturday afternoon.

This was visible on all the players’ faces, especially during the dunk fest in the fourth quarter when the East’s lead was out reach, 117-87, and “YMCA” reverberated throughout the gym’s speakers with just more than 3 minutes remaining.

“That’s what an All-Star Game is all about: guys coming out and showing their individual skills and putting on a show for the fans,” said Toyama Grouses center Jerod Ward, who scored 34 points and packed a year’s worth of highlight-reel plays neatly into a 23 action-packed minutes (but he won’t take a vacation just yet) and received the MVP trophy for leading the East to victory.

“It’s an honor to be here,” Ward said after the game, “with all the great players in the bj-league.”

The feeling was mutual Saturday as players from both teams exchanged high-fives, hugs, pats on the back and small talk throughout their entertaining matchup.

Oita HeatDevils forward Andy Ellis led the West with 23 points, while Takamatsu big man Julius Ashby added 22, Tokyo Apache’s John Humphrey scored 23, including 12 in a spirited fourth-quarter display of razzle-dazzle and go-for-it confidence and Osaka Evessa’s Masashi Joho had 18.

For the victorious East squad, Sendai 89ers forward Mamadou Diouf scored 24 on 11-for-16 shooting.

“I think we had a great group of guys,” Ward said, “and the bj-league did a great job and the fans did a great job of selecting a great group of guys to prove the bj-league is worthy of all the hype. . . . It’s the first real professional league in Japan, in its second year and first All-Star Game, and everything is a plus to go from here.”

Looking ahead to next year, Ward said pro hoops in Okinawa will be a treat on a full-time basis.

“It should be very exciting for the fans,” he said. “Hopefully the fans see that the bj-league is a very worthy league and they’ll continue to come out and support the bj-league . . . because it’s going to be very exciting.”

In the third quarter, the East’s lead ballooned to 72-47 after a Davis putback. Then Goya’s 3-pointer produced the same margin seconds later.

The East scored 30-plus points in each of the four quarters. The West scored in the 20s in each of those frames. That forced the final margin.

East guard Makoto Hasegawa started the game with a sizzling shooting touch, knocking down a trio of 3-pointers — and the game’s first points — in the first 3-plus minutes. It was 9-2 after Hasegawa dropped his third 3-ball in as many attempts.

The East had a 31-23 advantage after one quarter. Hasegawa’s nine points led all players, and the West’s No. 4, Ashby had a team-best eight at that point.

In a fast-moving second quarter, East power forward Gordon James unleashed his thunder dunks. His in-the-paint associates Nick Davis, Diouf and Ward were dominant and productive as well, pushing the East to a 63-47 edge at the intermission.

The East had no trouble putting points on the board — or scoring quickly for that matter. The squad made 20 of 30 shots from inside the 3-point arc in the first half. James led the way with a 5-for-6 effort and Ward was 6-for-9.

The West made a respectable 12 of 24 two-point shots, but had 11 turnovers to the East’s four in the opening half.

Ward had 18 points by halftime, including a 14-point outburst in the second. Ashby, a fan favorite in Takamatsu, had a 16-point first half. The methodical big man was 7-for-8 from the field, and Osaka’s Masashi Joho contributed 12 points before the third quarter commence.

Goya kept his team’s shooters happy, finding them at the precise split-second when the defense was a step behind them or when a gap to penetrate past the opposing players emerged. He had five assists before the break.

Niigata speedster Naoto Kosuge did his part in 13 busy first-half minutes, grabbing three steals and dishing out three assists, making two rebounds and hitting a 3-pointer.

Davis was Chairman of the Boards, with six in the opening half. He finished with 10 points and 12 boards, three assists, three blocked shots, two steals and a big smile.