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Aoki takes All-Star shooting crown from Okada

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Sharpshooter Cohey Aoki, a long-distance and free-throw shooting maestro, thrilled the masses during Sunday’s bj-league All-Star Game 3-Point Shooting Contest.

Aoki, the longtime Tokyo Apache star who joined the Osaka Evessa after the two-time championship runnerup team folded, delivered a crowd-pleasing effort by dethroning two-time contest champion Yu Okada at Saitama Super Arena.

Aoki scored 18 points in the final round, edging Sendai 89ers forward Dan Fitzgerald by one point.

“I had the feeling I had lost,” Aoki said, hinting at his ability to make more shots on a regular basis. “But it’s good (to win). I was lucky.”

In the 3-Point Contest, six participants have one minute to take 25 shots, five apiece at five locations around the perimeter. The final shot in each location, a “power ball” is worth two points.

Employing a smooth, rapid-fire delivery, Aoki swished seven consecutive shots in the head-to-head round against Fitzgerald and had 14 points after his 15th shot at the top of the 3-point arc.

Fitzgerald, a Marquette University product, had a chance to overtake Aoki at the end of their round, but missed his final two shots.

Earlier, after advancing to the final round, Fitzgerald told the crowd, “I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me. I hope to give the fans a good show. I feel good, feel great. Yes.”

The fans enjoyed the action, too.

In the opening round of the long-range shooting contest, Yasuaki Arai of the Saitama Broncos was the first participant. He scored 13 points, followed by Aoki’s 16.

Okada, in his second season on the Shiga Lakestars after four seasons with the Takamatsu Five Arrows, hade an off-shooting day. He had eight points by the midway point, but couldn’t duplicate that effort the rest of the way. He finished with 10 points.

“I didn’t shoot well,” Okada said.

Next up, Akita Northern Happinets forward Kazuhiro Shoji, a former Bronco, was close to reaching the two-man final found, but just came up short. He scored 14 points.

Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoneix standout Wayne Arnold, last season’s Sixth Man Award winner, struggled to take his shots quickly. His long arms and shooting delivery took time to adjust to the pace. He was unable to take all 25 shots, finishing four shots shy and ended up with nine points.

Best dunker: Another ex-Apache, John “Helicopter” Humphrey of the Broncos, earned the Slam Dunk Contest title. Humphrey beat out Shiga’s Ray Nixon in the final round.

Humphrey, who owns a moniker that’s befitting of a high-flying artist, scored a perfect 50 points (five judges gave him a maximum of 10 points in both rounds) to out-perform Nixon, earned 42 points.

Humphrey successfully completed two of his four attempts in the final round. His first try, was a well-executed spin-and-jam move. He cradled the basketball like a bowling ball, instead of dribbling it or bouncing it, then forcefully jammed it home.

After a pair of misses, where he dribbled the ball between his legs and leaped high in the air, Humphrey closed the contest with a similar dunk; this time, though, he timed it perfectly and it ended with fans clapping, Humprey smiling and the All-Star MCs speaking excitedly as Humphrey collected the winner’s prize.

“I feel great to win a dunk contest in front of our wonderful fans, especially the Saitama Broncos boosters” said the man affectionately called “Helico” by the Japanese fans.

Toyama Grouses forward Brian Harper finished with 44 points, Yokohama B-Corsairs forward Justin Burrell amassed 45, forward Edward Morris of the Shinshu Brave Warriors was awarded 46.

Harper attempted a difficult leap over his Grouses teammate Masashi Joho, who sat on a chair in the lane and tossed the ball up in the air for Harper. Their timing was a bit off, and neither chance resulted in a dunk. Harper didn’t catch the ball either time. He did, however, make a nice leaping throw-down dunk to start off his 1-minute round, flying into the lane from a diagonal angle and jamming the ball to the delight of the spectators.

Two-time defending champion Yoshihiro Tachibana of the Sendai 89ers missed the cut for the final round. He scored 48 points.

Ever the showman, Tachibana donned a black jacket and dark shades for one shot, a simple, effective jam, his second attempt. He missed the first one.

On attempt No. 3, he switched to a Spider-man mask, drawing laughter from those at courtside and those throughout the cavernous venue.

After the dunk, he grabbed onto the rim and flipped himself upside down, not unlike a gymnast competing on the parallel bars. Tachibana, however, stayed in that position for several seconds, giving fans and press photographers a chance to snap away, using camera cellphones or big telephoto lens cameras.

Tachibana, who turns 30 on May 3, said it was regretful that he didn’t win, but admitted he has enjoyed participating in the dunk contest over the years. He said it’s possible that this was his final dunk contest.

In a bj-league career that began in 2007 with Toyama, Tachibana entered the season with four slam dunks in regular-season contests. A high-energy defender with limited offensive ability, Tachibana has emerged as a cult-like hero during All-Star festivities due to his entertaining antics, ever-changing outfits (he also donned Masamune Date headgear while on the floor, a nod to Sendai’s feudal lord during the Edo Period, and a wardrobe item he sported at the 2009-10 All-Star Game in Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture, which drew a boisterous response from those in the building at that time.)

Odds and ends: A league insider, who has already become a fervent supporter of the to-be-named new franchise awarded to Tokyo Pro Basketball, Co., Ltd on Friday, said the 2012-13 expansion club plans to play its home games at a variety of locations over the next four seasons, including BumB in Shin Kiba, where the Apache once held practices, as well as gyms in Ota and Sumida wards, Hachioji. The source told The Japan Times the new team plans to build a new permanent gymnasium adjacent to FC Tokyo’s soccer facility (Ajinomoto) in Chofu, Tokyo. . . . The defunct Apache booster club has a party planned for Jan. 22, as the new bj-league outfit makes plans to beginning publicizing its new agenda. . . .

Colorful characters: Longtime Kanto-area hoop personalities MC Ume, the Apache’s P.A. announcer until the 2010-11 season, and Broncos Masked Man, a fixture at Saitama games, were among the well-represented crowd of fans from teams throughout the league. As expected, Broncos Masked Man, as he calls himself, sported his usual mask and was seen in various locales around the arena chatting with a number of fans.