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Don’t expect Japanese basketball to embrace a real, workable plan

by Ed Odeven

Every few months a false sense of hope surfaces on the blogosphere and in the mainstream media, where optimists peddle the message that Japan’s basketball “leaders” finally have their act together, that a new men’s pro league will, ahem, finally replace the outdated, increasingly irrelevant JBL and the ever-growing bj-league.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The new process will last a few years, at least until 2015, it says in the latest publicly released documents.

With years to come up with something concrete, the latest talk of a new league is highlighted (lowlighted?) by the insistence by the Japan Basketball Association that it wouldn’t be a purely pro league, that a gradual phasing in of pro-style teams would be the norm.

And what does that exactly mean? The fear of setting standards?

That’s enough of a reason in my mind for all of the JBA’s board members to immediately resign en masse.

How can the public ever gain an ounce of respect for a sport when its leaders arrive at the critical fork in the road and do nothing but wiggle out of making a real decision, and do so with a shocking lack of guts?

As a well-informed source wrote in a recent email, “Is there anyone surprised by any of this? The whole reason the bj-league was formed was that the JBA and the JBL could not and would not come up with a way to form a pro league. They still can’t. Nor do they seem to have any interest in doing so.

“I can’t wait to see the marketing campaign for the Absolutely Nothing New League (ANNL).”

But if hoop insiders are correct, the current JBL, which features eight teams, could have two new clubs in the near future in a league that may take a new name to spin the image that it’s actually a new creation. Sources say the bj-league’s Kyoto Hannaryz and Ryukyu Golden Kings have filed paperwork to be members of the new league if/when it is formed.

Don’t hold your breath. The status quo has a greater chance of sticking around for a long, long time.

“Of course the JBL and JBA aren’t going to form a professional league,” a source told The Japan Times. “Toshiba and Toyota have stated for years they won’t form professional teams, so why does either side pretend that it ‘might happen?’ It’s like Lucy telling Charlie Brown she won’t pull the football away … just trust her.”

That, however, doesn’t excuse the clueless bj-league from being identified as a major part of the problem.

“While the JBL and JBA stumble along on their no-progress-at-all course, the lack of leadership from the bj-league is sickening,” the source added. “They could have come up with a plan, rule changes, a draft, dispersal draft for Japanese players, potential schedules, suggestions for hometowns of the JBL teams, getting rid of under-performing bj-league teams, new playoff format, the list is endless.

“The JBL hasn’t come up with one new idea in 15 years, 20 years, who knows how long, so why would you wait for the most incompetent people in that organization to propose their no-change-at-all plan?

“The bj-league should have gone (into the JBA board meetings) with various plans for number of teams, game schedules, salary caps, etc.”

In a sense, the bj-league’s crucial development years — Japan’s first pro circuit began play in the fall of 2005 as a breakaway league with six teams (two former JBL clubs) and now features 19 clubs minus the Tokyo Apache, one of the original six — have offered it a chance to raise its profile as a true visionary for basketball. Instead, the league, facing a shortage of cash and aggressive, forward-thinking, competent leaders, wasted a golden opportunity to expand its relevance and gain a major following in a nation where basketball-playing individuals and fans number in the millions.

“The best thing (the bj-league) could have done over the past 3-4 years is to treat the JBL as a competitor to be defeated,” the hoop insider said. “Imagine if over the last six years of the bj-league they had gone to Toyota, Toshiba, Hitachi, Panasonic, etc., and tried to persuade them that the money they spent on their JBL team could be better spent as a main sponsor for the bj-league? Of course they would have been rejected and rejected … but now Toshiba is 2-18 (through Dec. 11).

“There’s probably somebody in that company right now wondering why they are spending money to keep a terrible team afloat. But that would’ve taken foresight, perseverance, dedication, planning.”

The JBA’s target to establish a new league, a merger, whatever the latest name for the project happens to be, has been 2013, with a phased-in process for a few years. Though the day that was revealed in 2010, my email inbox was flooded with messages suggesting that 2016 would be the earliest for such a proposal to be finalized.

Again, these sides have proven they are incapable of doing what’s best for the sport.

Or as one player, describing the process in crude terms, put it, “It’s like a pissing contest.”

For all its faults, the bj-league has a system in place that’s the framework for long-term appeal to fans and basically the right amount of teams. What it needs, though, is the JBL’s money and bigger sponsors. Bigger, bolder marketing and TV air time on the big networks on a regular basis are also necessary for basketball to rise in prominence as a genuine national league that can stand next to Nippon Professional Baseball and the J. League for public attention. The JBL is too small, too timid, too much of a corporate oddity to be taken seriously by the public.

“I have no idea what will happen in 2013, most likely things will basically stay the same,” the source said. “But the bj-league has wasted some of its best opportunities. Over the last two seasons with two former NBA players (Robert Swift, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) and a former NBA coach (Bob Hill), the bj-league made no effort to promote these people or distinguish their product from the JBL.

“Allowing terrible teams with no fan support to continue completely undermines the good teams that attract a lot of fans and local sponsors. The bj-league wants to be defined by teams like Okinawa (the Golden Kings, the three-time Final Four participants), but outsiders only see Takamatsu (0-18 entering this weekend) and Oita (4-14).

“This is a battle that will probably be lost because the bj-league didn’t realize they were in a fight.”

* * *

Shimane Susanoo Magic coach Zeljko Pavlicevic, whose bj-league team has established one of the top fan bases, a strong presence in the community and further recognition overseas by the steady play of ex-guard Takumi Ishizaki in Germany’s ProA League this season, believes a merger is the best hope for Japanese basketball to gain a greater following, a better economic model and a brighter future.

Pavlicevic, the former Japan national team coach, is well versed in the JBA’s bureaucratic machinations but isn’t fazed by the prospects of many more years of wasted time. Instead, he believes it’s time to get things started: a 24-team top league would be ideal, he said.

He also suggests a top 16-team playoff tournament each year, with the top four-finishers in each of four groups reaching the playoffs. Divide them into two playoff brackets of eight, he told me. That sets the framework for an appetizing format.

“We are show business,” he said, accentuating the positives of the sport, which the JBA is lousy at doing. “More games, more competition and more money for clubs and good for sponsors.”

I replied, “And much-needed TV air time and media coverage, which can grow year after year.”

Unfortunately, the JBA’s inner circle does not promote trust or confidence, nor does it build faith among the key parties that could usher in a better era of basketball here.

“The JBA exists so one faction has power over the other, not for the players, fans, or even the corporate sponsors,” a well-connected insider told The Japan Times.

It’s worth pointing out that the JBA’s official top leader (but really in a de facto role) is ex-Prime Minister Taro Aso, who should by theory be able to accomplish something as chief executive in a mere sports governing body. A meeting of FIBA and JBA leaders in Tokyo in February 2009 was intended to push the bj-league and JBL in the right direction to create one league. There’s no evidence of any real progress.

Which takes us back to a pair of major speed bumps within the JBL’s inner circle, Toyota and Toshiba.

“Toyota and Toshiba always seem to be mentioned as teams that do not want to be professional,” a hoop insider stated correctly. “OK, put them in the second division, and keep them there. They will either de-emphasize their teams or decide they actually do want to be in the top league and will form a professional team. Let them choose. Just don’t stop all progress because they, or any other team, doesn’t want any.

“With the NBA lockout, there were countless proposals that included all kinds of specific numbers and rules in great detail by sports writers all over the country. That should be happening here.”

Instead, the Japanese and foreign press corps in Japan is resigned to the fact that basketball is stuck on a metaphorical treadmill — people are moving but going nowhere.

And no one feels their ideas will be taken seriously. The lack of hope is depressing.

Here, though, is one forward-thinking, common-sense plan. A hoop insider calls it the PBnJ League (Pro Basketball in Japan), which features a pro division and a second division.

The 22-team pro division consists of two conferences. The East includes Hokkaido, Akita, Sendai, Niigata, Tochigi, Gunma (set to join the bj-league as an expansion team next season), Chiba, Hitachi (also based in Chiba), Saitama, Yokohama and Hamamatsu.

The West features Aisin, Mitsubishi — with both in Nagoya or Aichi, Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, Panasonic (also in Osaka), Hyogo (in Kobe), Shimane, Fukuoka, Kagoshima and Okinawa.

The second division consists of Toyota, Toshiba, all JBL2 teams (minus Hyogo, which moves up), Aomori (another new bj-league franchise set to begin in 2012), Iwate, Toyama, Nagano (the Shinshu Brave Warriors) and Miyazaki.

Meanwhile, “Oita and Takamatsu are buried in the basketball graveyard,” the source decided.

So how would the league be set up?

The specifics would include the stipulation that “JBL teams protect three players, maybe four, the rest can be drafted by the pro teams from the bj-league,” he said. “Set a salary cap that applies to both imports and Japanese players. But grandfather in all existing contracts, have them count 50 percent or 67 percent or some percentage of their value.

“Require all teams to have at least 12 players under contract at all times. Best for the fans would be four import players per team,with three on the court, maybe with the same second-quarter rule the bj-league has now, but the JBL might want to go for three imports and two can play. …

“Teams must average 1,500 fans per game, with that number gradually increasing, or they drop to the second division the following season. Set up a draft for the college players.”

The JBL currently plays a 42-game season, while the bj-league has had a 52-game schedule since the 2008-09 campaign.

For the new league, “how about 62 games?” the source offered, proposing an enticing plan. “Or 51, four games against each team in your division, one against each team in the other division. Play Friday and Sunday afternoon on the back-to-back games. Travel on Saturday for the inter-conference play.”

This proposal makes sense but it would require change. It would also require compromise and a big step forward that resembles in many ways what launched the J. League two decades ago. Nobody now is saying the Japan Football Association and soccer’s corporate big wigs made a colossal mistake by forming a pro league in the early 1990s. The time was right.

And now’s the time for Japanese basketball to arrive at that point.

“The number of teams, the rules, etc., all might change, but I refuse to believe that a few smart people couldn’t figure out a good compromise in a matter of days,” the architect of the above plan declared.

“As the attendance figures climbed, some teams might drop back to the second division. And if a team wants to move up, work to get your attendance figures to a certain level. Show that your team has a sufficient level of financial support, etc.”

* * *

Many people may believe there are individuals with good intentions in key positions of power within Japan’s basketball hierarchy. But really, what’s taking place is this: recycled ideas that are framed as new, progressive and/or original.

“Over and over the JBA asks that we just trust them,” said one source. “They never follow through, and yet those same people are asking that we believe this time. The latest proposal talks about a first step for 2013-14, 2014-15, and then a second step for 2015-16. But this is exactly the gradual process they have proposed over the years, and they never reach the planned next step.”

The primary example, he said, dates back to the 20th century. “After the 1999 season, four teams folded, and the league moved into the eight-team ‘Pre-Super League’ phase. So the 2000 season was supposed to be a transitional phase, introducing ‘home towns’ (often quite far from where teams actually lived or practiced) and giving teams time to move towards being professional.

“But of course when the 2001 season rolled around and the ‘Super League’ started, it was exactly the same as before, because too many teams objected to moving their team operations and players contracts towards professional ones.

“Then for about two years (2005 and 2006), as Japan was preparing for the Basketball World Championships in 2006 in Saitama, there was talk of a New League, with its own website. Finally the move to a professional league was going to take place. Everyone had two years to plan and prepare.

“Of course the ‘New League’ turned out to be … the JBL,” the source added. “Not only same teams and same system, but they used the same name, JBL, that they had just made of big deal out of retiring, with its own commemorative book to remember the JBL by, as they moved into the new era of the ‘New League’ which they named, the JBL.

“After twice promising a new and better league, and failing to deliver anything new at all, why do the people at JBA even get the chance to try again? Were these people actual managers in companies like Toshiba, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Hitachi, or Aisin, instead of working for the JBA or JBL, they would have been fired and replaced by people who could actually produce results.”

Expect more of the same.