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Selfless Shimura relishing basketball’s return to Sendai

by Ed Odeven

In the immediate aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, Sendai 89ers guard Takehiko Shimura emerged as an encouraging voice and a brave, positive symbol of hope for the Tohoku region. And his tireless efforts involved traditional and contemporary methods.

Whenever I scanned social media websites in those days of uncertainty and sadness, Shimura’s name appeared. He electronically filed a few dozen updates a day about his teammates, volunteer activities of other players and basketball-support staff — all vital information. Through unrelenting online activity, especially Twitter and Facebook, he became a visible leader.

Fans of the 89ers and others connected to Japan’s ever-growing basketball community helped pass along Shimura’s messages about the team’s latest activities and what was happening in Sendai and Miyagi Prefecture.

You probably know by now that the 89ers couldn’t complete their 2010-11 season after earthquake-related damage to the team’s primary home arena. But that didn’t stop Shimura and the 89ers from continuing their work in the community, bringing smiles to children’s faces, encouragement to the elderly and a message of perseverance in a time of unthinkable difficulties.

In an email message to The Japan Times on March 17, one longtime observer wrote: “Sendai’s Takehiko Shimura deserves the MVP this season for helping the victims and showing what the bj-league is all about. The bj-league has said and stressed that it is ‘community based.’

“I never saw any of the teams being ‘community based’ until I saw Shimura’s tweets. It would be a great story for the bj-league to send out to the world. I think he is taking a leadership role and doing a great job. In one of his tweets, he has a picture with (then) coach (Honoo) Hamaguchi and other members of the team. They were helping unloading the trucks with aid supplies.

“He was the one who contacted the bj-league to tell (officials) everyone was safe, he’s helping the victims by volunteering himself and he’s tweeting about his city asking for help.”

In an appropriate move, the 89ers selected Shimura, a Sendai native, as the team captain for the 2011-12 season, which begins on Saturday for the 89ers against the host Iwate Big Bulls, an expansion team, in a highly anticipated Tohoku derby weekend.

New coach Bob Pierce, who led the Akita Northern Happinets in 2010-11 after two seasons guiding the Shiga Lakestars, believes Shimura is the ideal choice for his new role.

“He has always been a leader, in high school and college, and team captain, of course, so it’s no surprise that his teammates and the team staff for the 89ers felt he should be the captain this season,” Pierce said. “Take got his start in mini-basketball in Sendai, so he has long been a role model for players and coaches in Sendai.”

Shimura, humble but confident by nature, now embraces this challenge at the pro level.

“As the captain, I will be watched more,” he said. “But I don’t think I have to change anything that I have done in the past, and that is why other guys thought I would be a fitting (choice) to be the captain. I will be aware of that.”

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After the March 11 earthquake, several Sendai players resumed their seasons with other teams under temporary relief contracts. In a classy gesture of solidarity, the league office had each of those players wear No. 89 on their new teams for the remainder of the season. For example, Shimura was No. 89 for the Ryukyu Golden Kings, as was Hikaru Kusaka for the Kyoto Hannaryz.

In a sense, all bj-league supports were rooting for the 89ers — “Go, go 89ers” signs were a constant presence at arenas for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs — giving Shimura and his disbanded teammates a boost of morale.

Though he played for a different team for a few months, Shimura learned something significant during his time with the Golden Kings.

“When I joined Okinawa, I realized it was great to give some energy through sports,” he said, reflecting on the spring experience. “Like Nadeshiko Japan (the Women’s World Cup-winning team), sports has the power. And now we are given the chance to exhibit the power, and that is really a blessing.”

Asked how the March 11 disasters affected him mentally, Shimura acknowledged that he came to realize that there will be great challenges in life and athletes do have a privileged lifestyle. Which is why, he said, volunteering is an integral part of what sports should be about: giving back to those who support teams.

“Playing basketball and living in general, I think we are blessed to be able to do them,” Shimura says now. “Back in the days (after the earthquake), there were times that we couldn’t do what we could have normally done.”

Now, Shimura remembers that life-altering experience and it influences his mind-set about the game.

On the court, “we really want to not waste any second and any minute, and that eventually leads to victories,” said the former Keio University player. “We need to feel blessed to be able to play basketball and live. I personally want to give everything on the court.”

Looking ahead to the new season, Shimura, a sure-handed, underrated ball handler in a league dominated by foreign guards and forwards, talked about wanting to be a double-digit scorer this season and also increasing his assist totals and collecting two or three steals a game. To be a consistent double-digit scorer, he pointed out that 40 percent 3-point shooting, 50 percent on 2s and 80 percent at the free-throw line are his targets.

And he mentioned his desire to reach the level of play of Japanese standouts Cohey Aoki (Osaka Evessa), Masashi Joho (Toyama Grouses), Kazuya “J.” Hatano (Shiga Lakestars) and Naoto Takushi (Oita HeatDevils) on a consistent basis.

“With the new coach and team installed, I think I need much more practice to improve my level,” he said. “I’ll do my best to achieve that.”

* * *

The 89ers, who were 24-12 and in second place in the Eastern Conference before March 11, will aim for a spot in the Final Four this season. The first step in reaching that goal would be grabbing one of the 10-team Eastern Conference’s six playoff berths. It’s an ambitious goal, but certainly not impossible.

Here’s how Shimura described the team’s approach to the new season: “We’ll kick off to a fresh new start. But it doesn’t mean we’ll do anything completely different from what we have done. And what makes this year special is we had the disaster and lost so many people while there are so many that have suffered from it, and we were in the situation that we might not be able to continue to play (in Sendai). So we hope to play for those people and give some courage and energy to them.”

The bj-league went through trying times in the spring, salvaging a season minus three teams (including the Saitama Broncos and Tokyo Apache), but still found a way to stage the playoffs and crown a champion (Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix). Through it all, Shimura remained true to his roots and displayed a commitment to community involvement that all public figures should strive for.

What’s more, he helped pave the way for greater volunteer efforts in the future for anyone connected to Japan’s basketball community.

“It was really good to see players like Take — and I know there were many others throughout Japan, and they all should be commended — using their blogs and Twitter accounts to let people know what was going on, to show others how they could help either by donating money or volunteering their time,” said Pierce, whose ex-team, the Happinets, were directly involved in many similar activities.

“I know the 89ers, their boosters and the people of Sendai are very proud of Takehiko Shimura, and what he did after the earthquake. And they are really happy he is back in a yellow uniform representing the city once again as a new season gets ready to start.”

It’s no coincidence, one could suggest, that the 28-year-old Shimura’s birthday is Feb. 14. The day symbolizes giving and love, and those traits are a big part of his personality.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.