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Teams relish chance to play in Yoyogi gym

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The game between the Tokyo Apache and Niigata Albirex wasn’t just special because it was the first wild-card contest ever played. It was spiced up by another ingredient as well.

The game was held at Yoyogi National Gymnasium Annex — which has been considered the sanctuary of the Japan Basketball Association-led Japan Basketball League — for the first time in the bj-league’s three-year history.

“Japanese players said this stadium is like the Japanese Madison Square Garden,” Apache coach Joe Bryant said. “They were proud to play here.”

Although his team was not able to host the game at home in Niigata, as the Albirex lost their final regular-season game and dropped to third in the standings last weekend, for head coach Hirose Masaya, Sunday afternoon wasdream-come-true.

“Me personally, this place is so special because I’ve coached here — which is called ‘the sacred place’ — and also played numerous games (here),” said the former JBL player and coach, who was named the club’s inaugural head coach in 2000.

“For many basketball players, it’s their dream and goal to play here. So I was so pleased that I got the opportunity to come here.

Despite the disappointing loss, Hirose couldn’t stop the flood of emotions brought about from stepping in the arena as a coach for the first time since his Albirex defected from the JBL to the bj-league in 2004.

“I had a heck of (a lot of) emotions,” Hirose said of when he came in the arena on Sunday. “I had both pleasure and disappointment here.

“I feel afresh that this is a good place — the seating, the size. . .I was so impressed that the arena was packed with people in purple and orange (the respective team colors of the Apache and Albirex).”