SENDAI – March 6, 2011, was a typical Sunday for the Sendai 89ers.
The bj-league team, a perennial playoff squad under demanding bench boss Honoo Hamaguchi, faced the host Saitama Broncos in the finale of an ordinary two-game series, and star guard Mac Hopson scored 40 points in Sendai’s 95-86 victory.
Less than a week later, Japan’s present and future changed instantly. At 2:46 p.m., on March 11, the Great East Japan Earthquake, followed by a powerful tsunami, caused widespread devastation, thousands of deaths and unthinkable suffering to the Tohoku region. As a result, the 89ers’ season also ended.
Sendai and Miyagi Prefecture have begun the process of rebuilding, a task that will probably take decades. In this time, the 89ers and other sports team will play a role in giving people a sense of normalcy in their daily lives.
“We really like playing for the city and we really want the city to be behind us as well,” forward Johnny Dukes said after the team’s Oct. 28 morning practice at their new training facility, the Haleo Dome. This was a day before Sendai’s first home game since late February, and after practice new coach Bob Pierce spoke to several reporters about the 89ers’ return and, in his view, its significance.
Last season, Pierce said, “some of the American players after the earthquake asked me, ‘Is it safe to live in Sendai?’ The outside world thinks the whole city was wiped out . . . “
That didn’t happen.
“We are alive, we’re here, we’re back,” Pierce declared. “Sendai’s back. That’s what we want to show the fans and the world.”
For the 89ers’ first home game, which attracted 5,064 fans to Sendai City Gymnasium (the highest total in the 19-team circuit this season) against the Happinets, the team’s game program, also its season motto, featured this appropriate slogan: “Go for it together.”
The Sendai season began on Oct. 8 on the road against the expansion Iwate Big Bulls.
Last Saturday, Akita defeated Sendai 80-71 and held off the 89ers 93-88 in the rematch before a crowd of 3,381.
“It was amazing to walk into that gym and see so many fans,” Pierce said, reflecting on the home opener. “It was a very emotional moment when our captain, Takehiko Shimura, stood at center court to greet the fans with ‘tadaima!’ (I’m back!) and hearing 5,064 voices shout out ‘okaeri!’ (welcome back!).
“The bond between the fans and the team was forged over the last six years with all the hard work the team and staff put into it, but overcoming the tragedy of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami has made that bond even deeper.
“Celebrating the return of the 89ers in that gymnasium were many kids and families who suffered unimaginable losses back in March. And so the simple act of playing a game of basketball became a symbol of the spirit of the rebirth and renewal that is going on throughout Miyagi Prefecture.
“We are so grateful to all our fans, and thankful that we can play a small role in making life better in Sendai.”
This weekend, the 89ers (3-3) are on the road against the expansion Shinshu Brave Warriors.
Led by longtime team president Teruhisa Nakamura and general manager Takeo Mabashi, the 89ers harnessed their efforts to be a visible presence in the community in the immediate aftermath of 3/11. Visiting relief shelters, helping to load food and medical supplies for victims, signing autographs for the elderly, conducting hoop clinics for school-age youths and cheerleading instruction for students kept Sendai players and staff members busy.
Case in point: 89ers public relations director Aki Kawamura told the Asahi Shimbun that on a visit with team cheerleaders to Okawa Junior High School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a city particularly hit hard by the tsunami, a female student said these unforgettable words: “Teach me to dance again.”
The Asahi also reported that 89ers cheerleaders taught dance at the school every week after receiving this request from one gym teacher: “Give the students the will to live.”
This season is a new challenge, too, for a franchise that has won 156 of 264 regular-season games since the league began in the fall of 2005. In many ways, it’s starting all over again.
Guard Kenichi Takahashi, who joined the club in 2006, has averaged 8.6 points per game in his Sendai career. He has been sidelined while rehabbing a back injury but has been participating in team workouts.
In Takahashi’s view, the 89ers will approach this season like any other, but he admitted there’s extra motivation to be successful, knowing that sports has the power to enrich people’s lives.
“What we can do is play basketball,” the Akita native said. “We can try to win to make them happy.”
But Takahashi, speaking in thoughtful, well-measured tones, emphasized this season and his current 89ers team is like no other he’s ever been a part of.
“Every year,” he said, “different players change, especially American players. But we got the disaster, so this is going to be a really special season for me, for us.”
About 28 hours before the 4:10 p.m. tipoff against the Happinets on Oct. 8, Mabashi said, “I’m going to enjoy this weekend. Compared to what I felt seven months ago, this weekend is totally a huge change.”
Long lines of fans stood patiently outside Sendai City Gym before the gates opened up and they went inside for home opener. Inside the arena, an estimated 50 working journalists and 10 TV station cameras chronicled the day’s events.
As the game got under way, fans shed tears of joy only hours after players posted their thoughts on social media websites, describing it as a big-time event in Tohoku. One Sendai player said days like Saturday are the reason he became a professional athlete. And it was a game shown live on BS Fuji, featuring a former NBA scout based in Asia (Pierce) and a two-time bj-league championship coach (Akita’s Kazuo Nakamura, formerly the Hamamatsu Higashmikawa Phoenix sideline supervisor who now has Pierce’s old job).
After the game, spectators of all ages waited for a chance to meet and greet the 89ers players, 11 of whom jotted down their name on pieces of papers, shirts and other memorabilia of all shapes and sizes.
One elementary school fan accompanied by his father said he was “very happy” to get backup shooting guard Soshi Yasuda’s autograph, even if he didn’t play in the opener.
Did the home opener signal a new chapter for the 89ers?
Mabashi, the general manager, said he had mixed feelings about making that distinction.
“It’s opening a new chapter and half of the feeling is yes, the Sendai 89ers are going to start a new season at home this weekend,” Mabashi said. “However, the other 50 percent is (this): I still have a feeling of an unfinished season because everything stopped after 3/11.”
The 89ers went 24-12 last season and were in position to compete for a Final Four spot. History will always remember that.
And now, the current 89ers are on a mission to do more than compete for a playoff spot.
“From what I’ve seen myself, our support branches out throughout Miyagi Prefecture, and it’s not just locally,” said forward O’Neal Mims. “When we do clinics, fans in the countryside, the kids and parents, are just as excited as we are to be there, as they are to come out and watch us play.”
Mims considers the 89ers a team that’s “representing the whole prefecture in the right manner.” And although this is his first year in Japan, Mims, and fellow American teammates Dukes, Rashaad Singleton and Dan Fitzgerald have fully embraced the team’s mission.
“We take to heart that we are not only playing for the people that lost everything. … We come from America where we hardly see tragedies like that,” said Mims, who’s averaging 16.0 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. “We see a hurricane every so often. But for somebody to lose almost everything they ever had and ever owned, it’s something new to us, so it … makes us want to give our all to the community, to the team — winning for them.”
He described the team’s mission by using the term “Redeem Team.”
“After the tragedy, we are going to redeem you guys,” Mims, a former Angelo (Texas) State player, said, speaking directly to Miyagi’s citizens. “It’s not just because we feel we can do this, it’s because we believe in the abilities that we have as much as we believe that your city can be brought back to life after an earthquake or a tsunami.”
Dukes agreed with Mims’ assessment of this special team-fan relationship in the prefecture.
Though they have endured and continue to cope with hardships of various scales, the generosity of the prefecture’s people has touched the 89ers in profound ways.
“They give us gifts and food, and it makes you want to do things for them,” said Dukes, a University of San Francisco product.
He added: “When we are going to do camps and making kids happy, it’s just a small gesture for us, but it’s something that’s big to them. They get to see a professional player and we get to show them some of the things that we can do.”
No one — with the possible exception being longtime American college hoops analyst Dick Vitale — has declared that basketball is absolutely essential to life. Yet for the fledgling bj-league Sendai has always been a key market. The 89ers have consistently had one of the league’s better average attendance figures among all teams, with more than 2,100-plus fans each season.
Some events cannot be predicted. History has always been that way, and, then, here’s how Pierce recalled what occurred on and after March 11:
“With the practice gym, a few players’ apartments and the main city gym used for games all damaged by the earthquake, there was no way to continue last season. … Gymnasiums were being used for evacuation, and the gym used for the (2009-10 bj-league) All-Star Game (in Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture) was used to hold dead bodies until they could be identified… “
Therefore, the 89ers and their parent company, Sendai Sports Link, which operates a basketball school at Haleo Dome, stood at the crossroads in March and the long road ahead led to unknown destinations.
“Right after the disaster happened, of course no one knows which direction this organization is going, either keep this business alive for next season or shut down the whole thing right away,” Mabashi said. “So first of all, I never thought about applying for another team’s job or thinking about basketball itself. I was not thinking anything about basketball right away. First and foremost, I thought … this company needs to stay strong.”
The 89ers faced tough decisions in mid-March; perhaps the biggest one was to terminate the contracts of all players and team staff.
(Hamaguchi and longtime 89ers trainer Yuichi Kitagawa have moved on to the Kyoto Hannaryz this season, filling the same jobs for the Kansai club.)
“That was a necessary step to not fold this business,” Mabashi said.
But without sponsorship money coming in, as many businesses suffered huge losses, keeping expenses to a bare minimum was a top priority for Nakamura, the team president, and Mabashi.
Mabashi poured his heart and soul into helping the organization stay afloat.
“The first thing was, if there was anything necessary to keep this company alive, either sales or selling tickets or getting sponsorships, whatever, outside of basketball operations … other elements of this business, I had to think that this company stays and keeps this business,” Mabashi recalled. “As a result, this team can operate. I did everything I could do for the company. Without the company, there’s no team. … I only thought about how I could contribute to keep this business.”
The average operating budget for a bj-league team for one season now is about ¥250 million. This season, the 89ers want to spend about 20 percent less than that figure, Mabashi said, noting that the team is trying to trim costs a bit for all of its projects rather than one lump-sum cut in any specific area.
Sendai City Gymnasium is the 89ers’ primary gym, but it’s not a facility owned by the team. Major repairs to the building were needed after the disaster. The cost: an estimated ¥200 million, according to a team spokesperson and data posted online by the Sendai city office. The gym’s usage is a big investment for the city, but one that unites people for a variety of activities.
Hard-core booster club members played a pivotal role in keeping the 89ers in the public spotlight after 3/11. In bj-league venues throughout Japan, team supporters and volunteers collected 20,000 signatures and submitted them to commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi.
“They were asking for friends and relatives (to help) and they went to other sporting venues — J. League games or the Rakuten Golden Eagles (baseball) games — and asked (for signatures) to save the Sendai 89ers,” Mabashi remembered.
The signatures were presented to Kawachi on May 21 at Ariake Colosseum during Final Four weekend. “Go, go Sendai 89ers. We are Sendai 89ers family. Go, go Sendai booster,” read one large banner that was displayed during the boosters’ symbolic meeting with Kawachi.
A few days later, the team was officially given the OK by the league office to re-enter the league for the 2011-12 season, but not before a league’s inspection of the team’s operations, facilities and finances.
Due to its nationwide booster efforts, the dispersal of players — Shimura to the Ryukyu Golden Kings and fellow guard Hikaru Kusaka to the Kyoto Hannaryz, for instance — the 89ers developed a greater following and name recognition.
This has helped the 89ers pursue more business relationships with companies from outside of their traditional base in Tohoku.
“We now get more business partners from central Japan,” Mabashi said.
He described this as “unusual” in past years. “We didn’t look for that before, but now we have more support from outside this prefecture.”
This includes Heiwa Fudosan, a real estate company based in Tokyo, and general contractor Sato Kogyo, a Toyama-based company, and other businesses in Osaka. (Haleo, a sports nutrition supplements company, is the team’s top sponsor.)
“Historically, the tendency of this organization most of the time is to look for local business partnerships,” Mabashi added. “But after the earthquake … we are more publicly well-known. As a result, some of the local businesses kind of bailed out after the earthquake because of their financial situation, so we have more of a tendency to get contracts with national-level businesses.”
In one interview, speedy guard Kusaka, a popular figure on and off the court, said the team’s mission is “winning games and giving courage to survivors.”
Asked if those goals were one and the same, Mabashi answered this way: “Our short-term goal is to have a playoff (series) at home, which means finishing in the top four in the Eastern Conference. That goal and also giving courage to people that survived the disaster is almost equal.”
The organization, however, is shying away from obsessing about reaching a specific number of wins.
“We don’t want to talk about winning or a winning record at the outset,” Mabashi said, “because this season is because of our supporters. That’s really important, so we have to thank them the whole season and also as we play that’s going to boost their (enjoyment) and hopefully we can encourage them because of our play and our games.”
Winning makes people feel good.
Winning brings smiles to children.
And it can be summed up this way:
“Winning is the nature of this business,” Mabashi said. “But this season we have more feeling of what we can do for the public or this city.”
The 89ers have already proven what they can accomplish. By returning to the bj-league, they have reminded Japan’s basketball community and the nation that the Tohoku team is a symbol of courage and the triumph of the human spirit … one dribble at a time, one jump shot at a time, one game at a time.