For a guy whose collegiate career concluded at little-known Southern Utah, David Palmer is living a dream.
He’s a professional basketball player, not a regular 9-to-5 office worker. Even better, before or after work he’s blessed with this perk: endless opportunities to enjoy Okinawa’s natural beauty.
“I ride my bike to the beach and may sit out at the beach and read a book,” Palmer said by telephone after a recent practice, not needing to elaborate on this whimsical thought.
A consummate professional, the Ryukyu Golden Kings sharpshooter insists he can cope with this vacation-like atmosphere with a get-down-and-dirty approach to his job.
“It could possibly be that way for some people. But for me, no not at all,” Palmer said, dismissing the idea that the islands can be a holiday-like distraction all the time.
“I love to play and I do take pride at doing my job.”
Clearly, the Golden Kings, who take on the Osaka Evessa in Saturday’s Western Conference final at Ariake Colosseum in Tokyo, are proud of the job Palmer has done since he joined the team this season, adding another key player to the mix as it retooled its lineup for another run at the title.
Ryukyu won its first championship in 2008-09 under coach Dai Oketani in his first season running the team, which included prized free agent signing Jeff Newton, the standout big man with three rings from his days playing for the Osaka Evessa.
“I felt this team definitely had a chance to contend and compete for a championship,” Palmer said, reflecting on his decision to reunite with Newton, his Evessa teammate from 2005-07.
Palmer left the Evessa after the team’s second title season when he won the league’s MVP award, opting to play in the NBA Development League in 2007-08. In 37 games for the Dakota Wizards, he averaged 7.9 points per game.
“It’s not always easy to get a roster spot (on a D-League team),” Palmer admitted.
Money is a major concern for players in that league, too, he said, with the typical salary being $2,000 to $4,000 per month, and most players making about $2,000.
In addition, the long D-League season and contractual buyouts make it a challenge for players to leave their teams and seek opportunities elsewhere.
“The No. 1 thing is guys just don’t want to make that commitment,” Palmer said.
Does he want to return to the D-League?
“No, I don’t think so,” Palmer said. “It was a good opportunity to get some more experience, playing against some high-level competition and get some exposure.
“I didn’t have the healthiest season there and I didn’t play as well as I was hoping, too. But it was a good experience.”
Palmer’s second stint with the Evessa lasted one season and ended after the team’s loss in the final against the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix last May.
Now he’s making preparations for his fourth trip to Ariake, where the league’s ultimate showcase will be held for the sixth consecutive spring.
Along with Newton and two-time MVP Lynn Washington of the Evessa, Palmer joined forces with point guard Matt Lottich, now an Oita HeatDevils standout, to give the league its first “Core Four,” the moniker often used to describe the New York Yankees’ dynasty quartet of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.
Palmer recognizes he’s had a role in building the league’s popularity during its formative years. And he doesn’t need to rattle off a list of the top players in league history to prove his point.
Simply put, Palmer lets his game speak for itself.
And how would he like to be remembered in the years to come?
“That I cared about basketball and I cared about the things off the court,” Palmer told me.
He paused for a moment and then said, “I really liked basketball and I really enjoyed my time here in Japan and I tried to make a positive experience on my team.”
To those who have played alongside Palmer, they’ll tell you he’s done exactly that.
In looking back at the rapid growth of the league since 2005-06, when it had six teams, to the 2011-12 campaign, when 20 clubs will compete, Palmer expresses pride in the role of its first generation of players.
“As it continues to grow and continues to add teams, a lot of us guys that have been here, we are part of the beginning of this league and helped this league grow and created a positive image,” Palmer said. “Most of us are proud of this.”
The 2010-11 Golden Kings, a veteran-laden squad, include newcomers Dillion Sneed in the frontcourt, guard Naoto Kosuge in the backcourt and scoring ace Carlos Dixon, who averaged a team-high 15.9 points per game.
“On any other team he would average 20 points per game,” Palmer said of Dixon, making a larger point about the team’s overall depth.
Newton, Anthony McHenry and Shigeyuki Kinjo were indispensable members of Ryukyu’s title-winning squad, while point guard Tsubasa Yonamine, who also played under Oketani at Oita, provide proven big-game production.
“He’s a true leader,” Palmer said of Yonamine. “I don’t think his true value can be measured by on-court statistics. He’s a quality leader.”
Is there an X-factor on this Golden Kings squad? Palmer thinks Kosuge could be that guy.
After five seasons in a Niigata Albirex BB uniform, Kosuge has benefited from a change of scenery. Indeed, it’s extremely rare for a player’s scoring average to decrease for five consecutive seasons, but that’s what happened to Kosuge while playing for Niigata coach Masaya Hirose, going from a respectable 9.5 ppg in 2005-06 to 1.6 last season.
This season, Kosuge scored 10.5 ppg and canned 85 3-pointers, his highest long-range output since the league’s inaugural season. In other words, Kosuge resurrected his career and reminded everyone that he got lost in the shuffle in Niigata.
In addition, Kosuge’s veteran leadership was also a key factor for the Kings.
“I think that obviously Kosuge coming from Niigata has been a huge benefit. Niigata’s a really professional organization and that carries over to the players,” Palmer said.
“He talks in meetings. He’s been such a good player for us. He’s been huge.”
Palmer made his season debut in early November and played in 32 games (six starts), filling a role as a key player off the bench for Oketani. He had a similar assignment with Osaka. (As the 2006-07 MVP, he averaged 17.4 ppg and finished the season with 34 straight games of 10 or more points.)
The Californian missed eight games in January and February with a shoulder injury, but he finished the season strong, including a 7-for-9 output on 3-point shots in a 26-point game on April 26, two 19-point games and an 18-point effort in the season’s final weeks.
“Yeah, there’s always something you could’ve done better,” Palmer said. “But I’m pretty happy with the season. I wish I would’ve rebounded the ball a little bit better. I think having a shoulder injury handicapped me a little bit. I was a little hesitant to mix it up down low.
“I missed some opportunities to rebound and protect the rim.”
As is the case with any player or team, especially those that strive for perfection, it’s easy to point out one’s shortcomings. It’s not always easy, though, to expresses those things in detail.
Palmer found a simple way to summarize his season and his team’s, saying, “Overall, we had our ups and downs, and I did as well, but it’s been a pretty successful season so far.”
He’s right. The Golden Kings have played 52 games, winning 36 of them, including two playoff contests against the Shiga Lakestars on May 7-8 to earn a trip to the Final Four for the third straight season.
That’s a special achievement in itself.
But Palmer and Co. aren’t quite ready to begin thinking about summer vacation plans yet.
“Hopefully we can win two more games and then it’ll be a really successful season,” he said.