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League, fans preparing for annual All-Star festivities

by Ed Odeven

The bj-league staged its inaugural All-Star Game on Jan. 27 in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. Indeed, it was a terrific chance for the league to reach out to a new fan base in the nation’s southernmost region.

On several occasions over the weekend and in the weeks that followed, bj-league Commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi spoke about the benefits of bringing this special showcase game to Okinawa less than a year before the league would welcome the Ryukyu Golden Kings to the fold as an expansion team.

The fans rewarded the enthusiastic league boss with a special weekend, showing up by the hundreds for basketball clinics, autograph sessions and, oh yeah, the actual All-Star Game.

Eleven months later, the bj-league is set for its second annual All-Star Game. This time, it will be played at Toki Messe, also referred to as the Niigata Convention Center.

Saturday’s tipoff is slated for 2:20 p.m.

Twenty players were selected to play in 40-minute contest, 10 of which were chosen by fan voting and the other half picked by the league’s 10 coaches.

Kawachi said the league chose Toki Messe as the venue for this year’s game for two reasons.

First, he said, the league wanted to hold the game in the city of an Eastern Conference team (the Niigata Albirex BB); this way, the league would be alternating which conference would host the game. The Golden Kings, officially the host for the inaugural game, are a Western Conference team.

In addition, Kawachi said the league wanted to reward the rabid Albirex fans for their loyal support, noting the team is consistently drawing top crowds on a consistent basis.

“Niigata has been a very important franchise for the bj-league,” he added.

The Albirex, after all, were one of the league’s founding members, a team that defected from the JBL to help form Japan’s first professional basketball league.

Albirex coach Masaya Hirose will guide the East Team. Niigata forward Yuichi Ikeda (10.7 points per game), who was the top vote-getter among all players with 15,310 votes will start at small forward.

Joining him in the East’s frontcourt are Albirex forward Matt Garrison (15.6 ppg and a penchant for hitting 3-pointers; he won the All-Star 3-Point Shootout in Okinawa) and Sendai 89ers center Patrick Whearty, a 27-year-old who has helped his team post the conference’s top record (10-4) in the season’s first two months.

In the backcourt, Tokyo Apache point guard Cohey Aoki (15.1 ppg) and Toyama Grouses standout Takanori Goya, the face of the struggling second-year franchise with nine double-digit scoring outings this season, will step on the court for the opening tipoff.

The West’s leading vote-getter, Osaka Evessa small forward Kazuya Hatano, also earned a starting spot. He is known as much for his hustle, determination and gritty play as for his athleticism. Hatano (9.6 ppg) gives West coach Kensaku Tennichi, his everyday coach as well, a dependable option on both ends of the floor. The same is true of Jeff Newton, a top shot-blocker, rebounder and inside scorer.

“You’ll get 12 to 15 rebounds every game from Jeff,” Tennichi said in a recent interview at Ariake Colosseum in Tokyo.

The coach didn’t need to remind reporters that Newton’s trademark is two-fold: 35-40 minutes per game on the court and a double-double waiting to happen (he has 11 to date). And when his footwork and defensive timing are at their peak, the ex-Indiana University player is capable of blocking 10 shots in a game. Exhibit A: He swatted eight on Dec. 8 against the Golden Kings.

Takamatsu Five Arrows center George Leach, who has 21 dunks, 38 blocks, 125 rebounds and a never-stop-being productive mentality, will start in the middle.

In the West’s backcourt, Rizing Fukuoka veteran Tsuyoshi Kawazura, a positive on-the-court presence for the first-year club, brings 9.9 ppg and an eye-popping 58-to-16 assist/turnover ratio to the floor. Ryukyu point guard Naoto Takushi, the league’s player of the week two weeks ago after scoring a combined 57 points in a pair of games, completes the starting five. The No. 1 pick in the 2007 league draft, Takushi is also No. 1 in assists (6.6) and tied for the most steals (2.1 per game).

SLAM DUNK CONTESTANTS: Grouses guards Robby Joyner and Yoshihiro Tachibana, Five Arrows guards Satoshi Ikeda and Rasheed Sparks, plus James and Kosuge.

3-POINT SHOOTOUT PARTICIPANTS: Aoki, Garrison, Kusaka, Okada, Peppers, and Suzuki.

TV: BS Fuji will televise the game.