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Time for bj-league to take stock, make necessary changes

by Ed Odeven

Baseball and soccer are well-established professional sports in Japan. And now it’s time for the bj-league, Japan’s first professional basketball league, to take necessary steps to earn its place as an established, respected league.

What follows are suggestions and a critical analysis of the fourth-year league to date.

For starters, three ex-NBA players — Joe Bryant, David Benoit and John Neumann — are head coaches in the bj-league. That’s 25 percent of the league’s head coaches, folks. An impressive figure, indeed, but they aren’t widely known among Japan’s sports fans.

These guys should be the center piece of an aggressive marketing campaign by the bj-league. In fact, the marketing campaign should’ve started before the season began.

To elevate the public’s interest in the league, this nation’s citizens, first and foremost, need to know that three former NBA players are employed as head coaches in the league.

Unfortunately, it’s the notion here that 95 percent of the people in Japan don’t know that Bryant (Kobe’s father) coaches the Tokyo Apache, or that Benoit and Neumann hold the same posts for the Saitama Broncos and the Rizing Fukuoka, respectively.

To enhance the league’s reputation and increase revenue, people — millions of people — here need to know about these guys.

I’ve spoken to a few hundred Japanese people about basketball over the past two-plus seasons, and these conversations often involve a lot of “I don’t know” or “Oh, really” responses when the topic of the bj-league is brought up.

Why?

Few Japanese and foreigners living here even know a team exists in Tokyo, one of the world’s most populous cities. What’s more, most of them don’t know the difference between the bj-league, the nation’s first professional league, and the JBL, first a corporate league and now one that is a cross between corporate and quasi-professional.

So it’s time to properly educate the public about the bj-league.

Here are two suggestions:

• Produce a commercial with Bryant, Benoit and Neumann and run it on all of the major TV stations.

• Put poster-like advertisements of them in major newspapers around Japan.

For both ventures, include comments, spoken and written, by Japanese players to illustrate the importance of foreign coaches in Japan during the league’s infancy and the big role they’ve played in improving their quality of play.

The sooner a major marketing campaign is undertaken, the better. Until then, the league will continue to be a minor sport in Japan.

The players, coaches and teams deserve better. They deserve a chance to set the foundation to eventually become as popular as Nippon Professional Baseball and the J. League are.

* * * * * Ellis and Josh Peppers, the first- and second-leading scorers in the bj-league last season with 25.1 and 22.2 points per game while playing for the Oita HeatDevils and Rizing Fukuoka, respectively, were handed their walking papers by the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix before Christmas.

Both had sustained injuries this season. Therefore, they became expendable.

With bj-league players under contract for a maximum of one year, they instantly become a liability if they’re expected to miss more than a handful of games.

So that’s why the bj-league ought to require teams to have a reserve squad (five players; a viable option due to a lack of a minor league system) and an inactive list. That would help them maintain depth on their roster.

Instead, just the opposite is true.

Peppers (hamstring) and Ellis (leg) are not around to help the Phoenix fight for the Eastern Conference title, an impressive feat for a team that joined the league this season. (Veteran coach Kazuo Nakamura’s club was previously known as the OSG Phoenix and played in the JBL.)

After his release, Peppers sent me an e-mail. He wrote:

“It kind of happened overnight and still shocks me to this day that I was released. I wouldn’t say that I was treated unfairly by the coach nor the staff, but I will say here judgment isn’t on the bright side of things.

“. . . I would think it will be hard for foreign players to want to be a part of the organization simply because of how they conduct things throughout the season.”

In short, Peppers added, “nothing is promised, not even for the best player on the team.”

Peppers was averaging 18.5 ppg through the first 11 games of the season.

And then he got hurt. But more than likely, he would’ve returned by the All-Star break and been able to put up similar numbers in the season’s second half.

* * * * *

Similarly, Nick DeWitz, one of the best all-around players in the league last season, helped the Sendai 89ers win the Eastern Conference. A lithe forward with equal skills on the perimeter and in the paint, the former University of Oregon player brought his talents to Kansai for the 2008-09 season.

Before the season began, Osaka Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi spoke excitedly about the cerebral nature of DeWitz’s game.

“He’s very versatile,” Tennichi said by phone from Osaka. “He can rebound. He can score. He can pass. He can dribble. . . . I think he can make some big assists.”

DeWitz’s tenure with the Evessa lasted less than half a season. He, too, was injured before the All-Star break, hurting his ankle on a highlight-reel putback slam against the Tokyo Apache on Nov. 20. His contract was bought out shortly thereafter, and he’s now playing in Hungary.

Too many good players are not sticking around to help their teams win games, to help increase their fan bases and to help the league grow successfully.

Again: too much turnover is bad for business.

* * * * * Ejima, the bj-league’s public relations director, confirmed that the league doesn’t place a limit on team transactions before the March 13 deadline.

“Which means that you can cut, trade and sign as many players as you want before the deadline,” Ejima said.

“There have been numerous trades this season, and we cannot memorize who went to which team.”

He added: “The official guidebook does not mean anything any more since many players were cut and traded. And the chaos will be over 1 1/2 months later.”

He’s right. But it’s the league’s job to keep track of these things and to keep chaos to a minimum.

The sad reality, however, is this: Journalists and fans are also having a very difficult time keeping track of which players are on the 12 team rosters.

What’s more, I estimate about 20 percent of the league’s players currently on team rosters weren’t there on Opening Day. In addition, Takanori Goya (Osaka, Fukuoka), Jun Nakanishi (Fukuoka, Osaka), Isaac Sojourner (Takamatsu, Saitama) and Rodney Webb (Toyama, Sendai) have suited up for two teams in 2008-09.

Last week, the Grouses released center Babacar Camara. He averaged 16.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He also blocked 50 shots. And then he signed a new contract with the Five Arrows.

Toyama (9-23) has been the worst team or the second-worst team in the league since joining the league for the 2006-07 season.

This team needs to add players, not lose them.

If the team cannot stay afloat financially, there seems to be only two viable options: get more funding or fold. Plain and simple.

The bj-league’s brain trust needs to take a long, hard look at the overall product and take steps to improve the makeup of every team’s rosters.

The current model is failing.

* * * * * today, it’s time to point out another fact: It’s time for the bj-league’s players to embrace the need for a union. This will give them a legitimate voice in their future, and the future of the league they are helping to build.

Several players, have told me they have no voice when it comes to discussions about contracts, playing conditions, travel, etc.

This is unacceptable.

The league will have 13 teams in 2009-10, and it plans further expansion in the future.

A players union will help the league make necessary improvements.

Just because there will be more teams in the future doesn’t necessarily mean the league has taken proper steps to be more like the NBA in terms of player-management relations, better working conditions (a day off between games, for instance), multiyear contracts and a true league-wide marketing campaign.

Thus, the reality is this: the reputation of the bj-league is akin to that of the NBA in the mid-1960s, one that legendary Wilt Chamberlain aptly described as a “bush league.”

But we know how things turned out for the NBA — the league grew up.

For the bj-league, now’s the time to make appropriate changes.