Veteran sharpshooter Orimo hopes to fire Japan into Olympics

by Kaz Nagatsuka

YOKOHAMA — No matter how many years have gone by and how many young talents have appeared, one fact has not changed a bit since 14 years ago: swingman Takehiko Orimo can shoot a basketball better than any one in Japan.

Takehiko Orimo WIDTH="250" HEIGHT="435"/>Takehiko Orimo, a veteran of the JBL and national team, is known as the best shooter in Japan.
KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

Orimo, now 36, has not been an everyday starter for JBL Super League powerhouse Toyota Alvark the last couple of seasons like he once was. He alternates now between starting and coming off the bench, depending on the opponent and situations of his team.

“I’ve finally gotten used to the role,” laughed Orimo, who started in 14 games out of 24 in the 2006-07 regular season.

But whether Orimo starts or takes a role as a sixth man, either way, the title of “the best shooter” is still with him, leaving him an incomparable threat to anyone of any team.

Earlier in his career, Orimo was a scorer. He thought it would help his team win games by sinking as many shots as he could. But later he realized it wouldn’t.

“When I was younger, I would go score forcibly,” the 2000-01 season MVP said after Sunday’s 94-88 win over the Aisin Sea Horses in Game 2 of the playoff semifinals.

“But by even doing so, the team wouldn’t win. Now I’ve come to think that you’ve got to have other members that can contribute to a win, too.”

People, however, come to the arena just to see him play.

Orimo’s blessed with phenomenal shooting ability that comes from his cotton-soft right wrist and has made him special in the business.

The 190-cm Orimo shot 60 percent (24-for-40) from the 3-point range in the regular season — best in the league and his first title in the department in 10 years.

He also shot 59 percent from the field, which was second in the league to Jermaine Tate of the Hitachi Sunrockers.

“Because the number of shots was few,” Orimo said humbly. But even so, 60 percent from downtown throughout a season is something you can call a divine performance in basketball.

Ten years ago, the number of points scored or average point total was the most significant figure for Orimo. But his thoughts have now revolved like a Copernican as he has grown up as a hoop player.

“I was going to focus on the percentage,” Orimo, who averaged 9.7 points per game this season, said when asked how he wanted to play coming into the 2006-07 season.

Quality rather than quantity, in other words.

When it comes to a challenge, it might be more for Orimo now than before, because everybody knows he can nail shots if he gets room to shoot.

“Nobody gives me space any more and guys who match up with me never leave me to help other players,” Orimo said. “So it’s really hard for me to even touch the ball, and I have to create some space by myself.”

And Orimo takes it as a positive that those who guard him don’t leave him alone.

He explained that his other teammates don’t get double-teamed by him drawing defenders, and that is a part of his job.

Meanwhile, Orimo is still a big part of the Japan national team.

For most of the time then-head coach Zeljko Pavlicevic was building the national team for last summer’s FIBA World Championships, Orimo was left out of the team and he himself didn’t think there would be a spot on it.

But Pavlicevic and the Japan Basketball Association changed their youngster-only principle and called up Orimo in May, three months before the tourney.

Orimo lived up to everybody’s expectations. He finished the tournament with a team-best 12.2 points per game.

Orimo is again on a list of the national team candidates for the July 28-Aug. 5 FIBA Asian Championships, announced by the association last week, along with another Japanese legend, point guard Kenichi Sako of the Sea Horses.

The Asian Championships will be the qualifier of the region for next year’s Beijing Olympics.

Japan is surely desperate to need him and his golden wrist. And Orimo is desperate to play for the national team as well.

“I’m not going to play for another three or four years,” Orimo said. “The Olympics qualifier is definitely big. Both I and Sako have done everything — winning domestic titles and medals in Asian Championships (1995 Seoul and ’97 Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) — but play in an Olympics.”

Japan’s men’s basketball team has not played in an Olympics since the 1976 Montreal Games.

Orimo ended up with just two points, and failed to nail any of his four attempts from behind the 3-point line in Saturday’s Game 1 of the semifinal series against Aisin.

But he regained his usual form on Sunday, scoring 13 points in 23 minutes, while making crucial shots late in the game to help the Alvark complete a sweep of Aisin and advance to the finals.