Hokkaido residents embrace new pro basketball team

by Kaz Nagatsuka

SAPPORO — It wasn’t until recent years that Hokkaido was believed to be a place that wouldn’t come into being, mainly because of the far, isolated location from the mainland of Japan — Tokyo particularly — and its chillier climate.

News photoRera Kamuy players slap hands, signaling the end of a team pep talk, during a recent practice in Sapporo.
The squad is a first-year JBL team.
KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

We have to, however, call it a groundless fear. The J. League’s Consadole Sapporo, who became the first pro team in the northern island in 1998, and NPB’s Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, who moved here from Tokyo three years ago, have successfully taken roots on the soil.

The Rera Kamuy Hokkaido, who debuted in the Japan Basketball League (JBL) this 2007-08 season, are trying to follow the “senior” clubs in the area, capitalizing on the popularity of the sport among the people. As for the number of overall participants (all ages) registered for the Japan Basketball Association (JBA), Hokkaido has the nation’s second-largest population to play ball behind Kanagawa Prefecture.

The name Rera Kamuy comes from the language of a native tribe in the area, the Ainu, and means “the god of the winds.”

Tomoya Higashino, the inaugural head coach for the Sapporo-based Rera Kamuy, explained with a smile that there is so much potential for the sport and his ballclub in Hokkaido.

“When you go back to the origin of this sport, (Dr. James) Naismith-san came up with it because he thought something had to be invented while you can’t play anything outside during the winter,” Higashino said after a recent team workout at Hokkaido Prefectural Gymnasium.

“We’re in the same kind of circumstances here in Hokkaido. That’s why we have many lovers here. Also, there are the Nippon Ham Fighters and Consadole Sapporo, and there is not many places that sports are enjoyed like here.”

Higashino, a former Japan national team assistant coach, called his team a “gypsy” because it doesn’t have a particular place to practice at like the league’s other clubs, which are owned by major manufacturers, such as Toyota Motors, Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba, and have their own practice facilities.

Despite that fact, Higashino doesn’t hang his head. He’s rather proud that Rera Kamuy, one of the three JBL teams that play just with pure professional players, is building strong ties with Hokkaido communities, getting more exposure day in and day out.

“We’re helped by many people,” he said. “For example, the gymnasium we used today, you can’t expect to use it very often. We train at various places. When a place is available, we’re able to us it through a courtesy. In the midst of the human relationships, I feel there is so much potential (for this club and Hokkaido).”

Luckily, Rera Kamuy has been able to acquire some notable players, such as veteran sharpshooter Takehiko Orimo, young phenom Ryota Sakurai and former University of North Carolina player Jawad Williams. Both Orimo and Sakurai also played for the Japan national team at the 2006 FIBA World Championship.

The 37-year-old Orimo, one of the finest players the nation has ever produced, joined the club with so much determination that he wants to exhibit his own trademark here on the northern island.

The change of scenery has helped Orimo revive his game and enjoy life in Hokkaido.

“Wherever I go (in Sapporo), I hear cheerful words,” said Orimo, who left the Toyota Alvark, where he spent his whole 14-year career in the league, before joining Rera Kamuy.

“When I was at Toyota, I was playing for myself and never thought about playing for anyone else, frankly speaking. But, as I came to Hokkaido, it’s changed. I’m feeling like I’ve got to do my best for them.”

Even for an invincible man like Orimo, the atmosphere that the enthusiastic Hokkaido supporters create feels very different. It may be because, unlike in other JBL clubs’ home games, Rera Kamuy’s fans are pure supporters for the team, not employees of parent companies.

Orimo said that the fans make the players feel really like they are playing at home.

“Every one of the fans stands by for us,” he said. “I feel it’s a blessing for us to play in an atmosphere like that.”

Williams, a JBL newcomer, echoed Orimo’s sentiments.

“The fans are cool, man,” said Williams, a forward who was tri-captain for the Tar Heels that won the NCAA championship in 2005. “They’re very supportive at home games and give us extra boost that we need out there to play us a little bit harder.”

After last weekend’s games, Hokkaido is 5-5 and tied for third in the JBL standings, drawing about 2,800 fans on average to its six home contests (it becomes 3,000 at the 3,500-seat Tsukisamu Alpha Court Dome, the team’s “real” franchise arena).

As of Nov. 7, Orimo and Sakurai lead in the shooting and point guard spots, respectively, and Williams was placed second in the foreigners’ division for the East team of the JBL All-Star Game. The game will be played at Tsukisamu Alpha Court Dome on Dec. 25.

Meanwhile, even with the favorable start, there has not been a day that team president Kazuko Mizusawa, a former Consadole director, feels carefree, because her biggest concern is how many fans visit the arena at the team’s home games, rather than how it plays and what outcome it has.

Mizusawa’s Rera Kamuy have been successful in attracting fans to the arena, which she described as “unexpected.” She thinks, however, that the Hokkaido region has so much promising potential.

Mizusawa’s vision is not just to create a strong basketball team that can win but also a team that entertain them and, ultimately, pour vigor into the Hokkaido community.

“We have no people that come to the game by duty or obligation,” Mizusawa said. “We can’t afford to let down the fans that come to our game by paying money.

“I thought the sport of basketball was the ‘tool’ to encourage Hokkaido. And we’d like to give the power and motivation through sports to the children that shoulder the future.”