In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, Toshimitsu Kawachi, the bj-league commissioner, spoke at length about the challenges the third-year league has in achieving long-term success, the structural problems of the Japan Basketball Association (JBA) and his vision for future expansion in the league.
|Toshimitsu Kawachi, commissioner of the bj-league, speaks to The Japan Times during an exclusive
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS
Which team has succeeded in reinforcing the notion that the bj-league can be a winning product?
Osaka has won titles for two straight years and they know how to win games. That’s a big asset for them. Osaka is stable and also they can strengthen the team through the (recent) Japan-South Korea championship match.
But other teams get to prepare, aiming at their season openers. So I think Osaka has an advantage in that respect, too.
In your opinion, which team do you expect to make a big improvement over last season?
A team I am looking for to have success this year is Saitama. Saitama’s Japanese players developed so much last season.
Also, they have Gordon James, who is small but can grab rebounds and run, and Japanese players like (Kazuhiro) Shoji, Kosuke (Shimizu) and Taishiro (Shimizu) who can shoot 3-pointers.
If they can unite, they’ll be good. And their core players have returned to the team this year. So, they had a tough year last season, but their Japanese players have improved so much.
If they can get off to a great start at the beginning of the season, I think they can be expected to have a great season this year. I’m going to say they are a “dark horse.”
You know, all teams are going to say, “What? Saitama?” And they don’t face (Saitama) seriously. So there is room (for Saitama) to take advantage of it. I don’t think you should make light of Saitama this year.
Besides, Saitama’s boosters are hot — passionate supporters.
Yes. They’re getting core fans up there.
Also, I’ve got great expectations for the Tokyo Apache as well. They brought Nick Davis (the ex-Niigata Albirex BB center) in where they had had a problem (inside), and they’ve acquired (Masashi) Joho (former Osaka Evessa shooting guard) as well. In other words, they got an inside player and an outside player. And they (Davis and Joho) have had some achievements also.
So teams like Saitama and Tokyo should be expected to make positive turnarounds.
As a league, you want the Kanto teams to do well, right?
Yeah, Tokyo is playing at Ariake, and they have to do better. I want them to do their best.
As for other teams, they’ll have come into the season with more experience, having fixed issues they had last year. So I don’t think there is any team that lowered its level.
This year, the league has new teams in Fukuoka and Okinawa. Next year, it will expand to Aichi Prefecture and Shiga. It looks like there are more teams in western Japan than in eastern Japan. Are you going to try to have teams in the north and east in the future?
Yeah, Akita unfortunately lost in the selections for this year’s expansion. But they had a Kokkutai (Japan’s national sports festival in 2007) and it was a great success. So I would like Akita to join us soon, and we’d also like to have teams in Tohoku and Hokkaido as well. Then we can balance up our league.
Meanwhile, your league requires expansions teams that can operate themselves throughout a season, right?
Yes, of course. Otherwise, both (the league and the teams) will get hurt. And also it will hurt other teams. So, it may not be easy, though, we are requiring those strict trials.
If you have an Akita team, won’t the fans of Akita boost the team and the league?
Yeah, because they have the foundation (Akita is known for basketball, represented by Noshiro Technical High School, where Yuta Tabuse graduated). It will be fun.
take on the expansion Rizing Fukuoka in Kyushu.
And you see so many fans even at the Noshiro Cup (the tournament of several selected high schools), making it so hot. So I think there will be a lot of excitement up there.
As for the JBA, it has not resolved its struggling financial issues and the national team finished eighth at the 2007 FIBA Asia Basketball Championship. Meanwhile, their league is not fully professional. Do you have a say about the situation? Isn’t it bad for the future of Japanese basketball?
Yes, you said it. I don’t think it is something that we, the bj-league, and JBL should talk to each other (about).
To talk about Japan’s basketball, I think there should be an occasion that all the past national team coaches get together and talk. And also all the past association executives should get together to talk about what is good for Japan’s basketball. I think in a sense this is a good chance.
I mean, this is not something only the bj-league and JBL should get together (to discuss), but all the past people that have been related to Japan’s basketball one way or another should also come in one place and have opinions, including on reinforcement and spreading out this sport.
And if I’m asked to attend that kind of opportunity, I’ll welcome it and will say my opinions from my past experience and what I’m going through right now, such as what’s going on in Asia and Europe. . . . It doesn’t matter if those opinions are to be applied or not, but it is important to have that kind of forum.
Are you going to be the catalyst for this forum?
Well, it’s not the time for us to do it right now, I guess, because right now, the councils have not been able to be held because of opposition between the (JBA’s) pro-executive committee and the anti-executive committee.
Then, it’s probably not the right timing for me to stand by which side and it’s difficult to hold an opportunity to discuss Japan’s basketball and its future. So I think they have to start with electing the right people, and then they can move on.
I think there is no way but the way to move ahead. In this situation, we saw Japan finished eighth (in ABC), though if they don’t have any vision for the future, it’s going to get worse and worse.
I would like them to be aware that the future of Japanese basketball will be grim if this continues indefinitely.
It seems that JBA officials lacked responsibility even after the ABC debacle. Is that right?
Yeah, I know the majority of people would say so. And some said the head coach (Kimikazu Suzuki) of the national coach is the coach at Aisin and the supervisor (Yoshiaki Sugiura) is a team executive at Aisin (and that was why they couldn’t win).
But they are adults and took the jobs because they thought they could get their jobs done. . . . Some said it was the fault of those who chose them, but they were responsible for those who took the jobs as well.
If you can’t get the job done, you should turn it down. So I’m not going to accuse anybody individually, but rather everybody collectively.
One of the reasons why I quit (the JBA side) was, I thought from now on you must have an exclusive staff to go to the Olympics and World Championship.
How about OSG, which will switch from the JBL to the bj-league next season? If the current situation continues at the JBA, might other teams follow OSG?
You know, if that happens, we’re going to be welcomed. Then I can explain to the media and association people that we have a corporate-oriented league (JBL) and a franchise-oriented league (bj), and it is ideal that players can choose leagues.
If that happens, I think it’s going to be easy to understand for those who love this game but don’t really understand all of the circumstances regarding the sport here.
For example, after last year’s World Championship some questioned why Japan did badly, though there is the bj-league. But the thing is, so many people don’t understand the differences between the JBL and bj-league. So I think it is the JBA’s responsibility to make it clear.
Has the upcoming OSG move had a big impact?
This year, three clubs — OSG, Hokkaido (Rera Kamuy) and Mitsubishi (Diamond Dolphins) — are going to operate their clubs by themselves. And OSG came to us because they understood there will be difficulties by playing in the amateur league. So it’s getting clearer to understand.
American Vince Rawl has become an owner at Oita. If I’m not mistaken, even in Nippon Professional Baseball and the J. League, it (foreign owner) is prohibited. What do you think about this?
We, the bj-league, don’t have a problem, although we did an elaborate inquiry on him. For example, if he got rid of the old staff, including (co-owner Hirofumi) Yano-san, saying they aren’t doing good, I would’ve said no, because without those who have put effort in taking roots in Oita, there is no future for the ballclub.
But actually he came down here and we talked, and he is actually a co-owner and he told us he wouldn’t take a dictatorship or anything, and added that the cities of Oita and Austin (Texas) have a sister-city relationship and wanted to make the town (Oita) a sports town like Dallas and Austin, where he has lived in. He’s not a guy who exploits things.
Basketball is considered a minor sports here, but if there are foreign investors that cherish this sport and children, as the league we welcome those people.
I don’t think many club owners would say “no” to those people. You can’t get in this league unless you agree to our “bj-league sengen” (code) anyway.
The era is going global and we have so many foreign investors here. And we are doing a business, too, and I think this flow is too natural. You have to take advantage of those. . .
Staff writer Ed Odeven contributed to this article.
Editor’s Note: Look for more preview stories in The Japan Times this week. The 2007-08 bj-league season tips off on Tuesday in Fukuoka.