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HeatDevils hoping to live to see fifth season

by Ed Odeven and Hiroshi Ikezawa

The Oita HeatDevils endured an 8-44 regular season, the worst record in the bj-league this season. And now the team is looking to find a way to remain in business.

During a Thursday phone conversation, Daijiro Kusakabe, the bj-league’s managing director, confirmed that the team is in the midst of a financial crisis.

“It is a true that Oita ordered its staff to stay home for a month starting May 1,” Kusakabe told The Japan Times.

“But even a big company will stop its factory temporarily when it is struggling financially. We think this is one of those cases.

“Oita is still doing some necessary activities, though they have stopped doing some things.”

Recent media reports suggest the team will likely fold if it doesn’t find a new main sponsor.

This situation has grabbed the attention of the league office personnel.

“It is also true that the main sponsors are considering withdrawing,” Kusakabe said, “but it is not the only case with Oita.

“It always happens to any team or league. Oita is looking for new sponsors right now and we’ll support them as we always do for league members.”

The HeatDevils have played in the bj-league since the 2005-06 season, when ex-NBA player Jawann Oldham was the team’s first coach.

The HeatDevils were 15-25 in their inaugural season, and Oldham was fired after the team’s 4-12 start and replaced by then-assistant Dai Oketani.

In their second season, they qualified for the playoffs with a 22-18 regular-season record. In 2007-08, they finished one game behind the Rizing Fukuoka for the Western Conference’s wild-card spot with a 19-25 record, and Oketani was fired.

Oketani moved on to the Ryukyu Golden Kings and helped orchestrate a remarkable turnaround this season. The Golden Kings were 10-34 in 2007-08; they went 41-11 this season and advanced to the Western Conference final earlier this week.

Tadaharu Ogawa, a former Oita player, coached the HeatDevils this season.

In the summer of 2007, American businessman Vince Rawl and Hirofumi Yano, the president of Oita Basketball Communication, met with The Japan Times for a wide-ranging interview.

Both men spoke about their unique vision for the team, which included helping to transform Beppu, Oita Prefecture, into a major sports/tourism mecca.

In addition, they spoke optimistically about the value of having Rawl, who resides in Texas, become the first foreign owner of a professional sports franchise in Japan.

“I hope my investment will open the door for other investors to start considering Japan as a viable investment vehicle,” Rawl said during the interview.

He added: “Yano-san has tremendous courage. He was the first one to actually reach out and look for outside investment or foreign investment for the bj-league. . .”

The partnership was short-lived.

Yano left the team within a year, but Rawl still remains in an ownership capacity. Rawl’s company, Palo Verde Holdings, is a league-wide sponsor.

In November 2008, a new company, officially called the Oita HeatDevils, was established. Hidetoshi Nakano, the bj-league president, served as the club’s interim president. Nakano has been replaced by Masaaki Mimaki, the current president.

“We have kept watching the situation of Oita since last year,” Kusakabe said.

As for the future of the HeatDevils and other teams with similar financial problems, Kusakabe issued this statement: “The bj-league has been making every effort to prevent any team from folding.”

If the HeatDevils fold, the league would still have 12 teams next season. The expansion Kyoto Hannaryz have been awarded the league’s 13th franchise and are scheduled to make their debut next fall.