FIBA promotes unity between Japan’s leagues

by Ed Odeven and Kaz Nagatsuka

Desperate times call for desperate measures, someone once said. And it’s safe to say these are desperate times for the Japan Basketball Association.

How desperate?

Making separate trips from Switzerland and Australia, two basketball bigwigs paid a visit to Tokyo this week to meet with top leaders of the much-maligned JBA to help lay the groundwork to end the mind-numbing impasse that exists between the Japan Basketball League and the bj-league.

FIBA President Bob Elphinston, of Australia, and Switzerland’s Patrick Baumann, secretary general of basketball’s world governing body, arrived in town on Wednesday and were to depart on Friday. On Thursday, the men held a two-hour meeting with JBA’s new executive board members, including secretary general Takashi Kiuchi and deputy president Yushi Samuro. (Prime Minster Taro Aso, who is the JBA’s president, met with the FIBA leaders after the afternoon news conference.)

Since the bj-league was formed in 2005, it has not been recognized by the JBA, and bj-league players cannot try out for the national team. The JBL, the older, established league, is considered the nation’s top league by the JBA.

This situation is clearly unfavorable to FIBA leaders only five months after the JBA’s suspension was lifted by the Japan Olympic Committee. (In March 2008, Kyodo News reported, the JBA was suspended “for persistent infighting that has severely hampered its operations.”)

“When you have this two-headed top competition, and half of the players of one (league) cannot participate on the national team, that is a problem for the Japan Basketball Association to resolve, and I think if they can resolve this that it will be very beneficial for the national team,” Baumann told reporters during a Thursday news conference.

“What is the end solution? I think it’s up to the Japan Basketball Association, (but) for us, the key solution is that there is a clear pyramid with one league at the top under the Japan Basketball Association.

“Then, and only then,” Baumann said, this would mark the “start of a new JBA once this issue can somehow be resolved.”

Samuro confirmed that bj-league and JBL officials have sat down to hold discussions in recent months, but didn’t offer any specifics, didn’t describe any progress being made in those talks and didn’t reveal that there’s a timetable for the bj-league’s inclusion in the JBA.

Thus, it’s no surprise that Elphinston and FIBA consider the JBA’s present problem a pressing matter.

“They’re here to see what’s going on regarding the JBA, which is causing some fuss and what we’re working on,” Samuro said.

Kiuchi did announce, however, that the JBA realizes the significance of solving this identity crisis. Furthermore, he said JBA officials agreed with a reporter’s observation that the bj-league, which will add its 13th team next fall, and the JBL are in the midst of an awkward situation.

“We’re going to take proper actions regarding this matter for the best interest of the fans,” said Kiuchi.

“We spent much of the meeting discussing the issues regarding the bj-league. We understand that this is a serious theme and is an important thing.”

“While the attendance in the JBL is increasing, we recognize the bj-league is expanding in the number of teams. We’d like to do something about this situation, and as the only governing body of basketball in Japan, we’d like to rapidly and smoothly bring this issue in the right direction.”

Baumann, for one, thinks the JBA needs to make this happen, but he cautioned that it won’t be a FIBA mandate.”

“What has to happen is not up to us,” he said bluntly. “We have listened, we have our own opinion but I think at the end of the day this is a decision of the JBA.”

But in a nation where basketball has always been a minor sport, a sport seeking to gain popularity and widespread popularity, the JBA clearly ought to take a more even-handed approach to this impasse.

Or as Baumann put it: “You cannot grow basketball if each of whatever party is playing his game in his own garden, and not looking at what’s happening in the next or the other way around.

“If there is a league in the country, it has to be with the JBA, under the JBA.”