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Evessa claim star Washington has decided to ‘retire’

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Osaka Evessa power forward Lynn Washington has been the most recognizable player in bj-league history.

A 20-point, 10-rebound performer with unmistakable poise, a knack for big 3-point shots and inside touch, toughness and leadership skills, the Indiana University product was the lone superstar since the league’s inception in 2005 to remain with his original team.

And now, that illustrious era is finished, ending with a drug scandal (Washington was cleared of all charges; more details below) that rocked the league to its very core.

Washington, who turned 34 on April 3, has retired, according to a news release issued by the Evessa on Monday.

Although retirement was the word the Osaka and league media relations departments used to signal the end of Washington’s Evessa tenure, the prevailing opinion among the majority of sources The Japan Times contacted on Monday had a different message. They called it a “forced resignation.”

In a statement issued by the team, Washington thanked fans for their support. He said it’s time for him to be with his family and requested that fans “understand my feelings.”

“The Osaka Evessa are a great team,” he said in a statement, “and I believe that even if I leave the team.”

“Retired? As with most things in the bj-league, (there are) more questions than answers,” one Eastern Conference bench boss blurted out.

Meanwhile, capable scorers Bobby St. Preux, Mike Bell, Satoshi Takeda and Cohey Aoki, Masashi Obuchi and injured center Wayne Marshall form the current nucleus of the Evessa squad.

The Osaka great, recognized instantly by his No. 44 jersey, leaves a legacy as a performer that is the stuff of legend.

Washington became the first player in league history to score 5,000 points, doing so last fall. He also was the driving force behind the team’s 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08 titles under former coach Kensaku Tennichi.

Those team were stacked with talent, including big man Jeff Newton, sharpshooter David Palmer (for the first two championships) and guard Matt Lottich, as well as steady role players in Masashi Joho, Naoto Nakamura and Kazuya “J.” Hatano during various stages of the dynasty; and Mikey Marshall stepped in to fill Palmer’s huge void in the final title season.

Washington’s final days with the Kansai franchise, however, will be remembered as a stunning drama. Washington was arrested March 13 for his alleged involvement in smuggling nearly 1 kg of marijuana into Japan.

(A package sent to Japan in November with his wife’s Dana’s name on it was discovered by customs officials; she was arrested in late February and remains in custody.)

Washington was detained for 18 days by Osaka Prefectural Police, who dropped all charges. He maintains his innocence and says his wife will also be exonerated.

As expected, the Evessa (31-15) are in the hunt for another championship. They are currently in second place in the Western Conference behind the archrival Ryuku Golden Kings (35-13).

“Lynn’s track record as a basketball player in this league speaks for itself . . . three championships, six Final Fours and four championship game appearances,” Osaka coach Ryan Blackwell told The Japan Times on Monday. “He’s the all-time leading scorer and rebounder in Osaka and, if I’m not mistaken, the leading scorer in the entire history of the bj-league.

“He’s arguably the best to play in this league and one of the best to ever play in Japan.”

Three-time reigning scoring champion Michael Parker of the Shimane Susanoo Magic and Newton, the Ryukyu star and Washington’s fellow Indiana alum, who is the bj-league’s only four-time title winner, are also in that super elite category.

“He was having another great season and could have possibly won his fourth championship,” Blackwell said of Washington. “I’ve played with and against many players throughout my career, many of them in the NBA and he’s as competitive as anybody I’ve been around. He has a great work ethic and always set a good example for our players and many others on what it takes to be successful.”

Basketball is generally described as a minor sport in Japan, but through the never-ending work and promotion of the sport by players like Washington, the bj-league has grown to 19 franchises this season, and 21 are set to compete next season. No minor feat, when you consider that the league had six teams, including a pair of JBL defectors — Niigata Albirex BB and Saitama Broncos — in 2005.

“He was consistent year in and year out,” Blackwell said of Washington. “In a business where players come and go, he maintained success over a long period of time and became the face of the team, the league and a name that people recognize in Japan.

“What people need to realize is that Lynn will be all right outside of basketball. It’s sad that his career with the Evessa ended this way, but Lynn has goals beyond the basketball court. He is an intelligent, ambitious and hard-working individual that can do anything he puts his mind to.

“It was a pleasure getting to know Lynn as a teammate (and) as his coach, and I look forward to continuing our friendship wherever life takes us.”

After his release from Osaka Prefectural Police Custody on March 30, Washington said in an exclusive interview with this newspaper hours later that he wanted to return to the team as soon as possible. That never happened despite being exonerated by the authorities.

Washington and team management held a meeting on April 2 to discuss his status (he was under contract until the end of the season). A day later, he delivered a somewhat cryptic message via Twitter: “The fear of rejection causes us to compromise. I’m tired of compromise! Time to do God’s will no matter who it affects.”

Since then, Washington, a native of San Jose, California, has had limited contact with those in Japan’s basketball community, including the media.

Lynn and Dana Washington’s three children have returned to California.

He remains in Osaka.

Team spokesman Makoto Yamada said on March 13 that Washington’s future with the team was unclear at that time. Understandable, considering he’d just been arrested.

“If he’s done such things as the media is reporting, we might have to cut him,” Yamada said that evening. “We would have to think about it.”

But, hey, didn’t the team also have to think about saying it wanted Washington, the face of the franchise, back?

To say there are a few skeptics out there regarding what really happened between Washington and team officials — a well-connected source stated that Human Holdings Co., Ltd., the team’s parent company, wanted to release the star forward immediately following his arrest, while team management vehemently supported keeping him on the roster — would be a colossal understatement.

In other words, the overwhelming impression is this: Washington remains guilty in the eyes of the Evessa’s inner circle, aided and abetted by the league’s hands-off management team.

“I would say that the league forced him to retire,” one league insider declared. “And even if they did not directly tell him to retire, they probably put him between a rock and a hard place. I can see them insinuating that there would be no other team that would sign him, (even) after he actually didn’t partake in any crime as far as Osaka police are concerned. . . “

Without hesitation, the source, who requested anonymity, ripped the league’s top brass for its handling of Washington’s case.

“We all know that in Japan image is everything,” he said. “It is probably important to point out that the league treated him like a criminal for being ‘innocent.’ We have seen this in the Japanese entertainment industry. . .

“It’s clear when you see how the newspapers wrote about everything when he was arrested, but never wrote anything about him being released. That is irresponsible journalism. . .”

After Washington’s exoneration, neither Evessa executives nor the league’s brain trust issued a timely statement that explicitly pointed out that he would be welcomed back to the team or the league, even after Osaka’s own exhaustive internal investigation found zero evidence of criminal activity by the longtime star. (That news release, which also said no one on the team had used drugs or was a part of any illicit drug-related activity, including Washington, was curiously released Friday night on the eve of a home series against the Albirex.)

That hardly comes as a surprise, multiple sources stated Monday.

One hoop observer, involved in a fan petition drive (more than 200 signatures were collected) last weekend to urge the Evessa to reinstate Washington, said the team’s plan all along was to force him out a week after their April 2 meeting.

“They wanted to discard the can ASAP,” the Evessa insider said.

Evessa management “doesn’t care” about players and fans, he added.

One passionate Osaka supporter emailed The Japan Times after reading the retirement announcement.

“Lynn retired. I don’t believe (it),” she wrote. “I hate the Evessa GM. How many times (can) they make us cry?”

Forward Jo Kurino, the No. 1 overall draft pick in league history, reflected on Washington’s career and his incredible impact since the beginning.

“Lynn, despite being undersized as an American power forward in a league flooded with imports, played with a lot of heart, was skilled and was really known for his will to win,” said Kurino, a former Oita HeatDevils and Tokyo Apache player. “He did not back down to anyone.

“Lynn had great leadership qualities and was well-known for being an import that wanted to get along with his Japanese comrades; he wanted to adapt to his surroundings,” added Kurino, who suited up for the JBL’s Levanga Hokkaido this season. “And as a result, the bj-league had a player that it can lean on to for marketing from its formidable years.

“Lynn has been on Spalding commercials. He has been on DVDs, and has been a face on BJTV. In Japan, you don’t find too many import players being marketed at the forefront of most campaigns, even if it’s professional baseball.”

Credit must go to Washington for being a superstar in a sport that had few genuine household names in this country.

“Lynn was one of the bj-league’s first-ever superstars and could be one of the reasons why the league drew so many fans despite basketball being a minor sport,” Kurino said.

“He’s got MVPs, championships, All-Star appearances, you name it. Those are things that can never be taken away from Lynn, even though the end of his career has been tarnished because of a drug-related case that police found him not to be involved in.

“I know fans will always remember the passion that Lynn played with. And players will respect how hard Lynn competed and placed an emphasis of winning.

“I hope Lynn is not done playing and can continue his legacy elsewhere if he never returns to the bj-league.”

Washington averaged 21.8 points and 10.7 rebounds in 229 regular-season games entering the 2011-12 campaign. He scored 17.9 points and grabbed 8.5 boards in 34 games this season. And he also collected his second consecutive All-Star Game MVP award in January.

This reporter’s Hoop Scoop column, which also featured numerous opinions from those in the game, selected Washington as the greatest player in league history last summer.