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Proposed new league will have major obstacles to overcome

But it's time to focus on building a better future for basketball in Japan

by Ed Odeven

To accurately describe what’s been going on for several years now in this nation’s pro hoop scene, I submit the following analogy:

The Japan Basketball League and the bj-league have been traveling in the same direction on identical trains on parallel tracks . . . with no destination in site.

In their own ways, both leagues have felt they know what’s best for the future of basketball in this country, while at the same time the Japan Basketball Association has had neither the will nor the skill to make the sport relevant to the masses. The JBA, the sport’s governing body here, has also been ill-equipped to deal with the equally vital challenge of how to make the men’s national team capable of qualifying for world championships and the Summer Olympics, as Hoop Scoop has detailed extensively in the past.

So, hey, you’ve probably heard by now there’s talk of a “next generation” men’s league being planned for 2013. In the meantime, there’s talk of games — preseason or regular season — to be played between the JBL (eight teams in its top division) and the bj-league (13 teams this season; 16 teams on tap for the 2010-11 campaign) starting next season. No details have been officially released yet.

The underlying assumption is that a new “top league” will be able to make money, and thus attract more fans, get more commercial sponsors and develop the proper interest needed to gain real air time on TV.

But for five years, the JBL and the bj-league, formed as an alternative to the painfully unprogressive JBL with two breakaway JBL clubs (Saitama Broncos and Niigata Albirex BB) and four new teams in the fall of 2005, have had no incentive to reach an agreement on anything.

Times change. But what evidence is there that in three years the necessary framework will be put in place for a successful new league?

“I think the bj-league should come up with their own proposals for interleague play, merger scenarios, etc., because I think the current conversation favors the status quo of the JBL, which is broken and can only drag down the bj-league,” said Shiga Lakestars coach Bob Pierce, who has previously coached the JBL’s Hitachi Sunrockers and served as an assistant coach on Japan’s men’s national team.

“The JBA controls the JBL, but USA Basketball doesn’t control the NBA. The NBA works to cooperate with USA Basketball, but still must think of its own needs and success first. If the bj-league gives up control to JBA, it will regret it.” The JBA’s recent 10-point outline (described in detail in The Japan Times on Feb. 12) for the creation of a new league stresses that it won’t be a merger, choosing instead to say this is about “forming a completely new entity.” But really, maybe only a small minority believe the new league would feature a strong balance of teams from the two existing pro leagues.

“When people in the JBL talk about merger, one new league, etc., what they are talking about is a few strong, surviving bj-league teams joining the JBL teams, meaning that many, if not most, of the bj-league teams would cease to exist,” Pierce said.

“I don’t think the bj-league side is thinking about that possibility. But if the JBL is serious about doing something, and I hope they are, then I think that the eight JBL teams, and the 13 (soon to be 16) bj-league teams should sit down and discuss their options, with each team getting an equal vote on the proposals.

“Personally, I don’t think the bj-league should be in any hurry. If they just stay the course for the next two to three, or even four years, most of the issues would begin to be clear or would take care of themselves.”

Pierce identified three key issues that JBL teams will face for the first time in the future:

1. A salary cap that include all players, not just import players.

2. A draft or method to fairly distribute Japanese players among all teams.

3. Making all players and staff 100 percent professional, eliminating the company employees.

He doesn’t hold a very optimistic view about JBL teams’ willingness to change.

“The trouble is, no one in the JBL seems to want to go the way of cutting back salaries,” Pierce said. “But there’s no way for our (bj-league) teams to suddenly increase their budgets either.

“Sometime in 2013 or 2014 we will here about the new proposal for a merger or creation of Major League Basketball in Japan to take place after the 2016 Olympics.”

* * * * *

Power forward Lynn Washington, a former Niigata player during its JBL days, who has been a star for the Osaka Evessa since the team joined the bj-league in 2005, is also skeptical about the feasibility of a new league, though he has supported the idea and the need for the bj-league’s Japanese players to get a shot at trying out for the national team (to date none has ever been invited to a tryout).

Washington, a two-time bj-league MVP, dismisses the notion held by many in the JBL and in the media that there are no quality bj-league teams. He characterized Aisin Sea Horses star J.R. Sakuragi’s recent comments in a Daily Yomiuri column on the JBL’s perceived superiority as being inaccurate.

“Honestly speaking, I believe the JBL will learn what type of league this is when the exhibition games start between the two leagues. J.R. is right about how some teams are hard to watch. The top four teams in the West and the top two in the East clearly know how to play,” Washington told me.

“The JBL players are overpaid so clearly they might think their league is better. However, if we played against Aisin with the bj-league rules presiding, we will win.”

He added: “You know before I talked about the two leagues needing to merge. I am not so sure about that now. After the news about the Toyota callbacks on automobiles and the ongoing (financial) struggles of Mitsubishi (a league-worst 3-27 record through Feb. 14), Toshiba, and Tochigi Brex, why would the bj-league want to merge?

“I think those companies need to see how the bj-league does business with less money and more fan support. After all, it is all about marketing, right?”

* * * * *

Oita HeatDevils bench boss Brian Rowsom is one of three former NBA players who are currently head coaches in the bj-league. John Neumann of the Takamatsu Five Arrows and David Benoit of the Kyoto Hannaryz are the others.

Rowsom, who also played for the JBL’s Toshiba club from 1995-98, embraces the opportunity to have the two leagues begin competing against each other.

“I think the JBL’s American players know there are very good American players in the bj-league, and combining the two leagues honestly is the best way to go for the future of pro basketball in Japan for the long term,” Rowsom told Hoop Scoop.

“Imagine the quality of the league then, and also the league could get more sponsors, too. One quick solution to see which league has better talent is to have the All-Stars from the bj-league play against the All-Stars from the JBL to see who would win.”

Now that’s something I’d support seeing during the 2010-11 season. It’s the type of showcase this country needs for its top Japanese men’s players, and would be a welcome introduction for many of its top import standouts.

“I have long said that the NBA’s All-Star Weekend would be more interesting if the NBA All-Star Game consisted of playing the North American All-Stars against the world as they did in the NHL (1998-2003),” Rowsom continued.

“Imagine Dirk (Nowitzki), (Manu) Ginobili, Tony Parker, Yao (Ming) and others against Tim Duncan, LeBron James, (Dwyane) Wade, Kobe (Bryant), etc. That would make the players play harder and the fans’ interest would definitely be much greater.”

Shifting topics back to Japanese basketball, Rowsom remains optimistic about a brighter future.

“I hope the JBL and the bj-league do the right thing and come to terms on the best solution for everyone involved,” he said. “Make one strong super league here in Japan of about 20 teams.”

* * * * *

Forward Jo Kurino, who played for the HeatDevils and Tokyo Apache during his days in the bj-league and now suits up for Mitsubishi, has mixed emotions about the uncertainty regarding basketball’s future here.

“My guess is, most established players probably wouldn’t want to go through it, as they feel they have proved themselves,” said Kurino, who played at Mt. Olive (N.C.) College before embarking on a pro career. “At this juncture, we are not even sure if all players will have to start from a clean slate or remain with their original teams.

“There are also rumors that not all teams will join this supposedly new league. Meaning, players that prefer the corporate team structure will most likely remain with their teams. So I am still not sure if the new league will maintain the best domestic players.”

Kurino thinks common sense solutions are needed for the proposed new league.

“In my personal opinion, I am in favor of a merger,” Kurino told Hoop Scoop. “But I think a new, neutral president should be chosen to run the league with executives from each league being on the board.

“Something needs to be done in finding a common medium for rule changes. I think the new league will be a great opportunity for businesses to promote itself and make money.

“I feel that there is a lot of potential in it from an arena sport perspective.”

It’s difficult to say how many teams should be in the new league. Is a dozen or two dozen clubs the right number to begin with? Or is 16 a better number? I really don’t know.

Players, of course, wonder if their job market will decrease or increase in the future, so there’s guarded optimism about the JBL’s still sketchy plans for 2013 and beyond.

“I have talked to a couple of players and some are excited,” Kurino said. “However, many are concerned about how things will work from a systematic standpoint. Many players believe that a merger is inevitably good for basketball, and they would love to play on a bigger stage and be recognized for their hoops prowess. However, they are very concerned about pending salary structures and the rules of play.

“Obviously, the bj-league places many import players on the court, so they are curious to know how it will work out.”

* * * * *

The bj-league and JBL’s current seasons both began the first weekend of October. The bj-league’s teams play 52 regular-season games; JBL squads play 42 contests.

The JBL playoffs are set for April 3-15; the bj-league’s regular season doesn’t end until May 9, with the playoff Final Four scheduled for May 22-23.

These facts alone pose challenges for the leagues to add games against the other league starting in 2010.

Other complications that will have to be sorted out include the following:

1. Which set of game rules will be followed?

2. What foreign player limits will the leagues follow?

The JBL currently has its on-the-court-one rule, restricting a team to one foreigner on the court at all times (unless he has become a naturalized Japanese citizen like Sakuragi). The bj-league allows three foreigners (or four if one of them is Asian).

Can the leagues simply compromise and have each team use two foreigners? That remains to be seen.

“Personally, I find that with the on-the-court-one rule the JBL style is nothing more than a replica of women’s basketball: lots of passing, 3-point shots, and mostly played below the rim,” Pierce said.

“Letting bj-league players try out for the national team would be a good step, but our league will end a month and a half or almost two months after the JBL, so would bj-league players even get a fair chance?”

Pierce isn’t the only head coach in either league who’d like to see exhibition games between the league next fall.

“I think we would all welcome some preseason games, as long as the rules were fair to both sides — maybe on-the-court-two,” he said. “But with the imbalance of teams, the bj-league may have twice as many teams as the JBL next season, hard to see how that schedule would work out. Much more valuable for us to play the KBL (Korean Basketball League) teams or other bj-league teams where we can play three imports. Allowing teams who want to play to arrange a game would be good start.”

He added: “Of course the bj-league may go to on-the-court-two next year. I know they are thinking about it. It would be a big mistake, because we don’t have enough good Japanese players yet. Fans would notice a big drop off in talent and level of play.

“A bj-league champion vs. the JBL champion in the preseason, like we do with the KBL, might be a good start. It might be too hard to do in the postseason if the ending dates stay so far apart.”

But based on current rules in place for the All-Japan Championships (Emperor’s Cup), Pierce isn’t too thrilled about the possibility of bj-league teams playing in it in the near future. Indeed, other bj-league coaches have similar views.

“I don’t see any value in playing in the All-Japan Tournament,” he said. “With the on-the-court-one rule I would have six Japanese players playing four spots, and five American players who have to share one spot. It would be a complete waste of time and cut two weeks out of the season that could be better spent.”

* * * * *

Benoit, the expansion Hannaryz’s first head coach, spoke about length on all of the above topics during a recent phone conversation.

He says he has no time for petty arguments, calling them a waste of time. He says it’s long overdue for the sport’s leaders to take a step in the right direction.

“I got the experience on both ends, because I played in the JBL and in the bj-league,” said Benoit, who previously served as Saitama’s head coach. “I’m just totally in defense of Japanese basketball, period. I won’t take any side for the bj-league or the JBL, because the dialogue now has to change for what is good in basketball in Japan for the country.

“Having that experience of being able to play in both leagues, I can say there’s not much difference actually. You have to get down to the skill aspects of the game. I’m not saying that this guy is better, or that league is not better, but overall for both leagues the skill in how to play the game should go up.”

Benoit, who played in 492 NBA regular-season games and 57 NBA playoff contests between 1991-2001, doesn’t believe there’s a great difference in the overall skill sets of players in either league.

“For anyone who has played here to say that this one is better or that one is better, doesn’t really truly understand pro basketball,” he said bluntly.

A big part of the blame should be pointed at the coaching system in Japan, he said, citing that players aren’t effectively learning a wide range of skills from their mentors.

“In order to make the product better for the players, the skill level for what they are using is not up to the highest standard and that’s why we don’t see anyone from Japan going to the NBA,” Benoit said.

We conversed briefly about current Link Tochigi Brex point guard Yuta Tabuse’s short stint with the Phoenix Suns several years ago, and Benoit spoke with admiration about the Japanese hero’s uncommon story.

“Being here with what he had to work with to get there . . . he really had to refine his skills,” Benoit said of Tabuse. “Even just to get there, I mean, some guys don’t even get to that chance.”

“I can appreciate that he got that chance. He really had to work, to refine his skills enough, to get to that level, and I speak as an experienced NBA player. I know what it took to get there.

“Even if you are staying for two to three years, the schedule is grueling. The players are great every night. That thing is hard. That’s really difficult to do.”

* * * * *

Benoit believes now’s the time for all of Japan’s basketball teams, leagues and JBA administration officials to become pro-active about the sport’s future.

“For me, it’s nothing personal. It’s just what I see,” he said. “I think the discussion is really what should be best for Japanese basketball and how we can take it to another level.

“In my personal opinion, I just think they should find a common ground and pull the two leagues together, but the level of communication has to be taken to a higher level. It cannot be so personal.

“We are talking about one thing: making basketball better in Japan. That should be the key. If we can all agree with that, how do we do that? That should be the dialogue.”

Benoit added: “The level of intelligence has to go up and the level of communication at the same time. Now we have to start talking about the owners working together, then all the coaches. Why are all of them not doing coaches clinics? Every coach is going to have different ways to do clinics. We just have different methods we may use for dribbling, or passing or how we work on those things. Of course we have different methods. Those things have to be ingrained to the point where we are all working on the same things.

“What I’m saying is, that kind of communication, having the trainers convention where the care for the players has to come into effect is vital. Managers meetings, all those things, I don’t want to say that it’s not being done, but it has to be incorporated when you are talking about building something, especially for something like the bj-league, where people, the fan base, are going to enjoy what they are paying their money for.”

Remember, Benoit pointed out, basketball is a show. “It’s entertainment,” he blurted out.

“That’s what makes any pro sport — baseball, even sumo wrestling, football, soccer, all those sports —interesting to watch. Once you’ve seen the movie ‘The Matrix,’ you already know what’s going to happen, but when you watch pro sports, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In his final analysis, Benoit spoke about the way European basketball over several decades improved to the point where it no longer relies as heavily on American stars to be teams’ go-to stars. He sees a similar scenario in Japan if politics isn’t the biggest hurdle to overcome.

But he knows any future league needs to place a greater emphasis on teaching fundamentals, which can only help Japan’s elementary school coaches to college coaches grasp what they ought to be focusing on.

“Let’s just the pick-and-roll for instance,” he said of the play that was the staple of his Utah Jazz teams in the 1990s. “How many (Japanese) teams actually use the pick-and-roll and know how to use it and know how to guard against it? And I am just taking about that one thing. That’s really the essential play.”

For Benoit and others who offered their insights for this story, really their message boils down to the same thing. Listen to Benoit’s poignant conclusion on the topic:

“I would really love for us to all come together and really take a hard look about how we are going to make basketball become better and really give it a strong chance to survive.”