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Evessa star says merger best bet for hoops in Japan

by Ed Odeven

Osaka Evessa power forward Lynn Washington brings a strong presence to the basketball court, using his full array of skills to consistently earn praise as one of the elite players in Japan.

Off the court, he is equally determined to speak his mind about the sport he plays and has played in this country for a number of years — first in the JBL and currently in the bj-league. So Washington, the first two-time MVP in bj-league history, has earned the right to speak his mind, anytime and anyplace he chooses to do so.

Listen to Washington’s analysis of the current state of affairs in Japanese basketball, including the foolish impasse/stalemate that exists between the JBL and the bj-league, coauthored by the clueless leadership atop the Japan Basketball Association, the national governing body, and common sense is his underlying message.

“The only way to increase popularity within the sport of basketball in Japan is to merge the JBL and the bj-league,” Washington said. “Basketball in Japan is a small sport in comparison to baseball or soccer. Thus, if the powers-that-be want the sport to survive, joining forces sooner and not later should be imperative.”

Will Washington’s words influence the powers-that-be?

Probably not.

After all, the JBA has done little, if anything, to demonstrate it cares — or knows — how to improve the sport’s image and popularity. I’d like to have a more optimistic outlook, but facts are facts and the fact remains that unless Japan has a strong men’s national team, a team that can compete for an Olympic berth and a medal every four years, the sport will continue to be as significant to the average working stiff as cricket or snooker is in the United States.

Washington, who played at Indiana University under Bob Knight, the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history, understands this as well as any one.

“First, in order to increase the quality of play the JBA needs to let some of the (bj-league’s) Japanese players at least try out for the national team,” said Washington, reflecting on the dirty politics that has gone on and continues to dictate the agenda of the JBA five years after the bj-league played its first game.

It’s simply unacceptable — you can even say downright cruel and heartless — that the bj-league’s Japanese players in their prime are still being denied the opportunity to play for the national team (and the ongoing Emperor’s Cup) while the process to integrate the national team for members of both the JBL and bj-league moves along at a speed that resembles a Ferrari cruising on an interprefectural highway somewhere between 0 and 1 kph.

(Historical note: The Japan men’s national team last qualified for the Summer Olympics in 1976. The current method of selecting players for the national team is not working, as evidenced by the team’s catastrophic failures in the 2007 and 2009 FIBA Asia Championship; a then worst-ever-eighth-place finish in the former and ninth in the latter.)

“Japanese players in the bj-league that would for sure make the national team are (Ryukyu Golden Kings shooting guard Shigeyuki) Kinjo, (Takamatsu Five Arrows shooting guard Yu) Okada and (Kyoto Hannaryz point guard Naoto) Takushi,” Washington told me.

“The fulfilling essence of confidence can complete a player as far as potential is concerned. What better confidence tool is there besides having a chance to play for your country?”

As the calendar switched to 2010, nearly a decade after point guard Yuta Tabuse became the first Japanese to play in the NBA, albeit a short stint, the JBA should be putting the finishing touches on what is absolutely necessary: a bold five- or 10-year plan to develop a bevy of NBA prospects. (Think of it as the JBA’s version of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to putting a man on the moon in the 1960s.)

Washington’s poignant advice should be a major part of that future plan, and I’m sure he would be delighted to sign on the dotted line if a proposal ever featured players’ voices as part of a planning committee.

In the meantime, the bj-league’s future plans include three new teams next season: the Akita Northern Happynets, the Shimane Susanoo Magic and a to-be-named Miyazaki franchise. This will increase the league’s total to 16 teams, or double the number of clubs in the JBL.

While expansion brings enthusiasm and new fan bases to the bj-league, the economic downturn has created challenges for all bj-league franchises to field competitive teams.

“Signing quality Americans are every team’s wish,” admitted Washington, who starred on Osaka’s three title teams in 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08. “This would consequently make the play better in the league. However, giving teams the benefit of the doubt, the global economy has left teams with little to work with.”

Last spring, then-Tokyo Apache forward Dameion Baker suffered a career-threatening injury (ruptured Achilles heel) in the championship final against the Ryukyu Golden Kings. Only after the fact was it learned that the team did not have medical insurance for Baker, and he’s told The Japan Times the team weaseled its way out of refunding him for the majority of the money he paid for his physical rehabilitation in North Carolina.

(Initial estimates were $6,000 for Baker’s rehab, and the team told The Japan Times it would promise to pay for half of it; in a recent e-mail, however, Baker said the team refunded him only $245 for his $4,500 bill.)

So it comes as no surprise that Washington believes the bj-league ought to have a players union.

“Everyone remembers the Dameion Baker situation, which was quite unfortunate,” Washington said. “However if there were a players union in the league, matters such as injury compensation and negotiations of other matters could be taken care of with a mediator.”

At the present time, bj-league players have no collective voice (probably by design), the sport has made no lasting impression on the masses here (sure, people admired Michael Jordan and other NBA greats, but have no transformative national heroes in the sport) and the future looks grim.

So why don’t the powers-that-be put aside their pride and their self-interests and do what’s right for the sport?

I’m still waiting for a legitimate excuse.