Competition never gets old for Sako

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Around his ankles and knees, thick bandages were rolled with quite a lot of ice, and in a single moment, his legs looked as twice bulky.

News photoJapan point guard Kenichi Sako, left, lays up the ball, as Takehiko Orimo looks on, in a recent
provisional national team workout for this summer’s FIBA Asia Championship in Tokushima. Sako and Orimo,
both 36, are expected to be the leaders of the team.
KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

If it happened 10 years, ago, he would probably have not needed that much of bandage.

Japan point guard Kenichi Sako has lived to be 36 years old, and in that time he has had many glorious achievements, including seven league championships and three MVP accolades in the Japan Basketball League Super League while being on the national team throughout his career.

But there is a strong reason for Sako to tie his shoe laces even tighter: next summer’s Beijing Olympics.

“An Olympics has been what I’ve been chasing,” Sako said during the first Japan provisional national team training camp at the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences late last month.

Sako, an Aisin Sea Horses point guard, was chosen for the 17-player provisional national team that aims to win a spot in the Olympics via the FIBA Asia Championship for Men in Tokushima from July 28 to Aug. 5, which will be the qualifier of the region. The winner takes the lone spot (if China, which automatically clinched the Games as the hosting nation, the second-place finisher will get it).

Indeed, there are huge obligations for Sako on the national team. Yet the object is quite simple: to take the men’s team, which has not played in an Olympics since the 1976 Montreal Games, to Beijing.

Japan finished sixth in last December’s Asian Games in Doha, after only a weeklong training camp.

Sako stressed that even though Japan could not reach the podium, each game was so close and he believes with more workouts it should stand atop in the Olympic qualifier.

“We could’ve won the silver medal with a bit more practice,” Sako said of the Asia Games. “I think we can enter the qualifier with different game plans from in the Asia Games. If other countries think Japan will be the same, we’ll give them some surprise.”

Japan coach Kimikazu Suzuki, who also coaches Aisin, expects Sako and another 36-year-older, Takehiko Orimo, who is on the provisional roster, to somehow be go-betweens on a team comprised mostly of players in their mid-20s, Kei Igarashi (Hitachi Sunrockers), Shinsuke Kashiwagi (Aisin) and tall twins Kosuke Takeuchi (Sea Horses) and Joji Takeuchi (Sunrockers).

“(Sako and Orimo) are blessed with experience,” Suzuki said. “They may not have as much knowledge as the coaches, though, they have a big influence on the team and others respect them so much. So what I want them is to teach other (young) players with different words from mine, rather than just play well.”

Sako is vying for a spot on the 12-man final roster for the Tokushima tournament, competing with much younger guys like Igarashi and Kashiwagi, both of whom played on the Zeljko Pavlicevic-led World Championship team last year.

But Sako is not a selfish guy. He wants to offer what he has absorbed in his career, especially passing on his knowledge to fellow point guards Igarashi and Kashiwagi. He is eager to teach what they couldn’t learn during the Pavlicevic era.

“They can play good in a game with a lot of transitions,” Sako said. “But it seems they can’t really capitalize on what’s in their brains. They’re still relying on their physical skills.

“When we were the core (of the national team), we were playing more with our brains, thinking about game situations. It’s really important for me to teach those young guys about today’s basketball theories.”

Meanwhile, Sako’s physical condition is far from perfect now. He hurt one of his legs during March’s JBL Super League playoffs and had limited workouts until the first training camp.

But his motivation level remains high. Sako has been part of the national team in three of the last four Olympic qualifiers — in Kobe in 1991, in Seoul in ’95 and in Fukuoka in ’99.

The fourth time will likely be his final challenge.

Admitting his decline in physical ability, Sako, a Yokohama native, believes mental toughness, ultimately, makes a winner.

Sako, who enjoys golf and jet-skiing in his spare time, said he has recently been inspired by athletes in other sports as well. He said he was impressed by left-handed pitcher Masahiro Yamamoto of the Chunichi Dragons, who tossed a shutout last month against the Hanshin Tigers. Yamamoto set a record for the oldest CL starter to have a shutout (41 years, 8 months).

For Sako, legendary veteran Orimo’s presence provides strong encouragement.

“After the Asian Games, me and (Orimo) talked that we can still do it,” Sako said. “And if we were to be selected on the provisional team we would go together, because we’re gifted with the opportunities.”

Orimo said he wouldn’t have come back to the court if Sako hadn’t been there.

“The reason for me to be here is it — the same goal,” said Orimo, who led Japan in scoring in last year’s FIBA World Championship.

“I want to go (to Beijing) with him, and that’s my No. 1 priority.”