Former American high school teammates Matsui, Ito help create winning atmosphere for Toyota

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

This Toyota Motors Alvark team is a completely different team than the one that exited the floor in a losing fashion in the JBL championship series four years ago.

The 2011-12 Alvark are a cheerful bunch, and they’ve created a feel-good, winning atmosphere.

Meet Keijuro “K.J.” Matsui and Taishi Ito, good examples of the team’s friendly, outgoing style.
“This is more like a team in the United States,” Matsui said after his team’s practice on Tuesday, one day before the JBL Finals’ Game 1 against the Aisin Sea Horses (31-11 regular-season record, tops in the JBL) at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium Annex. The first game tips off at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

“Other than our import players, we have guys like me, (assistant coach and Taishi’s older brother) Takuma (Ito) and Taishi, who have been in the States. So it makes it easy to get involved.”

Guards Matsui and Taishi were teammates at Montrose Christian High School in Rockville, Maryland, and Takuma attended the same school before them.

“It was a bit of a surprise,” Matsui said of their reunification at the JBL club.

After graduating from Montrose, Matsui played at Columbia University (2005-09), where he became the fist Japanese-born man to play NCAA Division I basketball, while Taishi moved to the West Coast to play at the University of Portland a year later.

“After high school, we got separated and never played each other in college,” said Matsui, who suited up for the JBL’s Rera Kamuy Hokkaido (now called Levanga Hokkaido) and Hitachi Sunrockers before transferring to Toyota this season. “But we were in touch and got the chance to play on the same team again. That’s a great feeling.”

Taishi said that he never anticipated the two would wear the same team’s jerseys again, but admitted their past experience certainly helped the Alvark (29-13 regular-season record, No. 2 in the JBL), who are led by fiery American bench boss Donald Beck.

“It’s easier for me to play with him (Matsui),” added Taishi, who’s in his second year in the JBL. “We’d known each other since high school and know our traits. We can converse in English, too.”

Matsui’s a year older than Taishi. In Japanese varsity sports clubs, a one-year age gap makes a big difference due to this nation’s hierarchical structure. For example, a freshman player has to respect a junior player; likewise, a junior player has to look up to a senior player.

But after spending time in the U.S. during their formative years, there’s no such notion for Matsui and Taishi.

“They don’t have it (the respect-the-elderly system),” said the 26-year-old Matsui. “When I went to (Montrose Christian), there was Takuma (who is 4 years older), but we’ve been talking like friends. We don’t really pay attention to our ages.”

As far as U.S. sports teams are concerned, Taishi emphasized an absolute merit system was applied over there. Age was not a factor, he said.

Taishi, 25, jokingly said that he never sees Matsui as a senior person.

“I’ve taken care of him a lot,” said Taishi, who played with Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant at Montrose Christian. (That’s why he currently wears the forward’s jersey number, 35.)

“There’s nothing like who’s older or who’s younger between us. Of course I have respect for him as a player. But I don’t care about our ages.”

Meanwhile, what Matsui and Taishi brought back home wasn’t just easy-going friendliness. During their school days in America, they endured tougher competitions than their Japanese compatriots faced here, vying for playing time on the court. And it made them stronger athletes, mentally and physically.

Matsui said that he improved significantly while living in the States. By participating in dozens of games against high-caliber competition, he said his maturation as a player can also be measured by his mental approach to the game.

“I’d played in such high-level games, like semifinals and finals in high school,” said Matsui, who was the JBL’s second-best 3-point shooter (42.4 percent) this season. “So I didn’t have any jitters in the semifinals (of the JBL playoffs against Hitachi), and I don’t have pressure that I have to make shots because I’ll be playing in the Finals. So I feel like I’ve certainly learned something in the States.”