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Aoki returns to Tokyo; Aomori, Nara get expansion teams

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The bj-league will add a pair of new franchises for the 2013-14 season, and Cohey Aoki, the only six-time All-Star in league history, is returning to the capital city.

Monday’s announcements pave the way for a busy month of preparations as the league slows down its operations for a few weeks before getting ready for preseason training camps to begin.

The newest expansion teams will be based in Nara and Aomori Prefectures, giving the league 22 clubs after the defection of the Chiba Jets to the re-branded JBL for the 2013-14 campaign. Chiba made its announcement after playing just one season in the bj-league, a rocky 18-34 campaign that saw the team go through two presidents.

Aomori had been previously awarded an expansion franchise for 2012-13, but financial problems destroyed plans for the team’s debut. A new Aomori group organized a successful bid this time, according to a league news release. That will raise the number of Tohoku-based teams to four: Sendai 89ers, Akita Northern Happinets, Iwate Big Bulls and the to-be-named Aomori squad.

A Tokyo-based group and another from an undisclosed location were also in the running for expansion teams. In recent years, Hiroshima- and Kagoshima-based groups have also tried to get expansion clubs as well, but shaky finances appear to be the biggest hurdles they could not overcome, according to hoop insiders.

Since its establishment in 2005 with six teams, the bj-league has added at least two teams every season since then, except for 2009-10 when the Kyoto Hannaryz were the lone newcomer. Nonstop expansion has provided an injection of money into the league whenever a new franchise joins, but the league’s overall instability and inability to manage its daily operations has grown, too.

Seven teams have joined the mix over the past two seasons — Miyazaki Shining Suns, Shimane Susanoo Magic and Akita in 2010-11, and Chiba, Yokohama B-Corsairs, Iwate and Shinshu Brave Warriors this past season — and the Tokyo Cinq Rêves and Gunma Crane Thunders will make their debuts for 2012-13.

“Only two new teams? Is expansion slowing down?” a league source asked facetiously.

The 31-year-old Aoki, meanwhile, has officially joined the expansion Cinq Rêves and will play for the club during its inaugural season.

The popular guard suited up for the Osaka Evessa last season after playing for the now-defunct Tokyo Apache from 2005-2011, including in 2009-10 for Motofumi Aoki, the well-traveled bench boss who was named the Cinq Rêves’ first coach. He coached the Brave Warriors last season after stints with the Apache and Takamatsu Five Arrows.

For the Evessa, Aoki, a Fukuoka native, scored 11.6 points per game and shot 89.5 percent from the foul line. He was the league leader in free-throw shooting accuracy for the fourth time. In addition, he’s one of the league’s premier clutch shooters with a number of go-ahead or winning shots during his seven bj-league seasons.

Returning to Tokyo, Aoki wrote on his blog that the experience in Osaka was “irreplaceable for me.” He said the players “helped and inspired one another. . . . We fought until the end of the season.”

And now he’s ready to play once again in Tokyo, where the fans’ fervent support cannot be forgotten, he said.

Though Osaka failed to reach the Final Four for the first time in franchise history last season, then-coach Ryan Blackwell understood the impact Aoki would make for the time, even before he played his first game for the Evessa.

“We are excited to have Cohey,” Blackwell said in an interview with The Japan Times. “He’s one of the most proven players — Japanese or import — in the league. He’s a great scorer who can create shots for himself and his teammates, as well as knock down shots from the perimeter.”

Building a team from scratch, the Cinq Rêves have the ideal veteran floor leader in the 167-cm Aoki, who has excelled as a starter or a sixth man throughout his career while playing for Joe Bryant, Aoki, Bob Hill and Blackwell.

Tokyo will expect the same from Aoki next season.

The Cinq Rêves also signed free agent guards Hirohisa Takada, formerly of the Evessa, and Takuro Ito, who spent the past two seasons with the Shining Suns.

Around the league: Teams have started to release their 2012-13 season schedules, and the Kyoto Hannaryz were the first team to fax their schedule last week.

The league’s eighth season will tip off on Oct. 6.

The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, for instance, will play 10 home games at Hamamatsu Arena, starting with a two-game series against the Sendai 89ers on Oct. 6-7.

The Phoenix, the championship runnerup to the Ryukyu Golden Kings in May, plan to use five other arenas for home games.

The 89ers will use the newly built Xebio Arena for the first time for an Oct. 13-14 series against the Iwate Big Bulls.