SENDAI — Ninety minutes after Sunday’s Sendai 89ers-Ryukyu Golden Kings game, a slew of players were still visiting with fans or conducting interviews.
The seemingly tireless 89ers public relations staff kept the interviews running smoothly and ensured that each reporter had time to ask the questions he/she wanted to.
While this was going on at Sendai Aoba Gym, one reporter started snapping photographs of a pair of sneakers which was neatly placed on a bench along the wall in the main hallway. I asked her why she was doing this. She told me they were Taira Yoshida’s sneakers.
Yoshida, a forward, used to play for the 89ers. The Osaka native’s now employed by the Golden Kings and living geographically and culturally in a completely different world in Okinawa, as well as experiencing the growing pains of playing for a brand new team.
Yoshida received a warm reception from the rowdy crowd of 2,194 fans on Sunday. It was a classy gesture by the Sendai supporters, who are enjoying a special season by their favorite team, which is now 16-4 and tied for the bj-league’s best record.
On the same day, another 4,330 people showed up in Kansai to watch the host Osaka Evessa take on the Toyama Grouses, and 2,727 were on hand to see the Niigata Albirex BB play host to the Tokyo Apache.
The bj-league, in its third season, now features 10 teams and will expand to 12 for the 2008-09 season.
All of the above are signs of a healthy league that has time and again embraced forward thinking.
Or as Toshimitsu Kawachi, the bj-league commissioner, stated in October 2005, just days before the league began play:
“In the past, baseball dominated pro sports. In the last 13 years, however, we have seen the establishment of the J. League and so more kids are taking up soccer.”
Nowadays professional soccer is clearly Japan’s fastest-growing sport, as evidenced by the huge crowds at Urawa Reds games and the sheer volume of coverage it gets in the sports newspapers.
And now, it seems, whenever you turn on the TV, there’s always a soccer game — Japanese teams or overseas teams — being televised in Japan.
The bj-league, on the other hand, has been virtually ignored by the daily sports publications. What’s more, as an upstart league it appears to be facing fierce resistance — and vehement resentment — from Japan’s powers-that-be in basketball.
For example, the All-Japan Basketball Championship, which concluded on Jan. 14 at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium annex, showcased 32 men’s teams, but all of them were from the JBL or universities.
The tournament’s title implies the competition is open to all top-level Japanese basketball teams.
That’s simply not true.
The bj-league isn’t recognized — conveniently disregarded, you can say, by the Japan Basketball Association (formerly known as JABBA, but which now goes by the acronym JBA).
My first reaction?
This is pathetic.
My second thought?
Ignoring the bj-league only deprives the fans of a chance to see some of Japan’s top players, such as flashy point guard Hikaru Kusaka of the 89ers and Evessa sharpshooter Naoto Nakamura against JBL teams.
The Japan men’s national team, you may recall, finished eighth in the FIBA Asia Championship last summer in Kagoshima and failed to qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics. That’s not exactly the sign of a country with a flourishing hoop scene.
To improve the situation, Japan needs better basketball competition as often as possible. Don’t think for a minute that JBL and bj-league players wouldn’t enjoy the competition that comes from being involved in the same tryout for spots on the national team.
It would keep all players motivated to get better and bring their “A” game to the tryouts.
But with the current “leadership” in place, the bj-league’s Japanese players cannot attend national team tryouts.
Let me put it another way: These guys are being blacklisted for making a living in their chosen profession in their own country.
What a joke!
Kawachi, speaking to The Japan Times before the 2007-08 season tipped off, offered this candid, and spot-on, analysis of this country’s basketball future:
“I would like them (JBA officials) to be aware that the future of Japanese basketball will be grim if this continues indefinitely.”
Nothing’s changed, and he didn’t need to explain why he made these comments. After all, as a former national team coach, Kawachi-san knows all too well about JBA’s lack of leadership and the problems that its leaders have created.
A quick reminder: The 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan lost ¥1.3 billion, while JBA and Hakuhodo, which oversaw the local organizing committee, ran the show.
So what can the JBA do to take a step in the positive direction?
Forget about its pride, its JBL tradition (dating back to 1967) and its inner sanctum of moves and shakers. Then, do this: reach out to the bj-league, start a preseason, midseason or postseason competition between All-Star teams of bj-league and JBL players, or a clash of the leagues’ champions.
A one-game contest or a best-of-three series would serve Japan well.
Give it a few years to earn widespread recognition, and then it would help raise the profile of this sport in Japan, attract more fans and, eventually, lead to more sponsors, a stronger fan base and . . . a chance to make more money from increased airtime on TV.
But the Japan Basketball Association isn’t exactly thrilled by what’s occurred in the past five years. The Niigata Albirex BB and Saitama Broncos made a bold, risky decision to leave the JBL and become charter franchises in the new bj-league. OSG Phoenix will do the same thing next season.
The bj-league is more than a party-crasher at your cousin’s wedding reception. Think of it as a permanent resident next door.
And it’s best to get to know your neighbors. Now a lot can happen in the next three to five years for this nation’s pro hoop scene, but the best step forward would be dialogue between JBA, JBL and bj-league officials and then annual competitions between the JBL and bj-league.
Anything less would be the same sad, pathetic story — and downright asinine.