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Panasonic helped bring foreign players to Japan

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Just as the Japan Basketball League is preparing to re-brand itself as the National Basketball League (NBL) for 2013-14, it is also coping with the planned loss of one of Japan’s most successful basketball clubs, the Panasonic Trians.

Panasonic Corp.’s financial woes — losses of ¥772.1 billion for the fiscal year ending in March — triggered the recent decision to pull the plug on the Trians, ending a team that has had an important role in the sport’s development here.

Paul Westhead was the first former NBA head coach (Lakers, Bulls, Nuggets) to lead a JBL team. He guided Panasonic from 2001-03, and was an influential figure in Kensaku Tennichi’s development as a head coach.

Serving as Westhead’s assistant, along with future Osaka Evessa assistant coach Yasushi Higa, Tennichi learned a coaching philosophy that served him well. He guided Panasonic from 2003-04 before taking over as the bench boss of the Evessa in the upstart bj-league in 2005, leading the club to three championships in the league’s first three seasons. (Tennichi and Higa are both college coaches in Kansai now.)

It all started at Panasonic for Tennichi.

“Westhead’s influence could clearly be seen when Tennichi became the head coach for Panasonic and then in his five seasons with the Evessa in the bj-league,” a longtime Japan basketball observer told Hoop Scoop.

Westhead coached the Lakers when Magic Johnson was a rookie. That Los Angeles squad won an NBA title, beating the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1979-80 season.

Years later, the 73-year-old Westhead, who now coaches the University of Oregon women’s team, can still conjure up memories of his time coaching in other leagues.

Flash back a decade ago when “I went to watch Paul Westhead practice with his ABA 2000 team, the Los Angeles Stars — this was the first incarnation of the old ABA, and that season only they had some decent salaries,” the source recalled. “Also, that was the year (2000-01) that (Makoto) Hasegawa left Japan and played on the San Diego ABA team.”

Which future coaching standout was also a part of Westhead’s Stars staff?

Scott Brooks, who took the Oklahoma City Thunder to the NBA Finals last season.

Hasegawa, 41, is still playing, now entering his third season with the Akita Northern Happinets. His role as a community ambassador has helped solidify the fan base and bring valuable corporate sponsors to the Happinets.


Westhead may have been the JBL’s first “big-name” hire, but perhaps what gave him that opportunity was the fact Toyota had hired Jack Schalow, a former Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach. Schalow led Toyota from 1995-99.

Before his coaching career took him to Japan, Schalow had been an assistant at several universities, including Duke and LSU. He also served as head coach at Seattle University, where one of his players was future NBA big man Jawann Oldham, who became the first head coach for the Oita HeatDevils in 2005-06, the bj-league’s inaugural season.

The Trians have not been winning championships in recent years, but the Panasonic-backed team showed that progressive moves pay off. Hiring Westhead was one such move.

So was bringing in Larry Johnson to spearhead the powerhouse team during the 1980s.

“All the American and other import players who are playing basketball in Japan owe a debt to Panasonic,” a hoop insider said. “Back when they were just (called) Matsushita Denki they won nine championships from 1979 to 1989, and were runner-ups the other two years.

“The star then was (former University of Kentucky guard) Larry Johnson, who was the league MVP five times. His success with Panasonic forced other team to hire import players, which is why all the current players now have jobs playing basketball in Japan.”

Think about that for a minute. An entire industry was essentially transformed — 21 bj-league teams and the current eight JBL and 12 JBL2 teams — and forced to adjust because of Johnson’s success in Japan.

Panasonic’s departure from Japanese basketball isn’t too surprising, though. A number of JBL teams have folded in the past several years, including Isuzu, Bosch, NKK, Sumitomo, Denso, Aichi Kikai, Japan Energy, Mitsui Seimei, Daiwa and Kumagai Gumi.

“If the parent company decides to cut expenditures and fold the team, that’s usually the end,” the insider said. “These company teams aren’t set up to be independent or to continue with different sponsors. It’s very sad because Panasonic has a long, rich history; for example, Makoto Hasegawa winning a championship (in 1994, for Matsushita Denki), as well as being the league MVP and Rookie of the Year, all in his first season.”

It all began when the Panasonic club team was established in 1951.


Will Panasonic’s decision to bolt from the JBL, just when the league is pushing to gain greater recognition as the re-branded NBL, have far-reaching consequences?

I posed this question to several sources, including forward Jo Kurino, the first overall draft pick in bj-league history. Kurino now plays for the JBL’s Levanga Hokkaido.

“I don’t think other companies will follow suit because ‘Panasonic dropped out’ of the league,” Kurino said. “I am pretty sure each company has this topic on its corporate agenda for annual board meetings. This goes for all sports; not just basketball.

“The corporate sports concept is obviously archaic. It’s not self-sustaining. It depends on the success of its sponsoring company. If corporate teams don’t seek a more success-driven, self-sustaining platform, teams will continue to fold. But this is something that has occurred in the last 20 years so I hope the existing teams get creative in their approach to keep operating their top league sports teams.

“I don’t know what to think of this dilemma,” he continued. “I am not angry. I am not surprised this occurred. I am just surprised that it happened with Panasonic. Panasonic has long been a super power when it comes to the electronics industry. This is more symbolic of how South Korean companies such as LG and Samsung are grabbing the initiative when it comes to getting a piece of the market pie.”

Another hoop insider said, “I think this decision by Panasonic will affect some companies sponsoring JBL teams, because this is the perfect timing to withdraw from basketball sponsoring. . . .

“I believe this decision by the leader of the industry will make companies rethink about their strategy. They should start off to balance the assets by stop operating a team and by sponsoring them. Let the professionals run the team, and let the companies sponsor them. Panasonic, Mitsubishi and Hitachi are not sports management companies, they are electronic manufacturers.

“As a former member of the bj-league, I would like to see someone from the bj-league and the Evessa step up and declare that they own Osaka now. When more powers step down, there is a chance of a newcomer stepping up.”

No one really likes to see a sports team go out of business. Indeed, Kurino understands that when a team folds it can affect other clubs in the league.

“From a player’s perspective, it signifies the loss of one major team, which means there are less jobs on the basketball market,” he noted. “It also signifies that the market value of players is going to be deflated. Panasonic was one of the teams that paid players well. With the folding of the club, more and more teams will now have an excuse to pay players less than they have done before. Even if clubs have the money in their budget, they can low-ball players in the name of staying solvent.

“This will also allow the bj-league to attract players since JBL teams may pay players less than in the past. Import players are usually attracted to the max contracts that the JBL offers. However, there are already numerous teams in the league that don’t max players out anymore. This can open the doors for the bj-league to perhaps have a chance at players that they couldn’t afford in the past.”

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Besides its name recognition and tradition, what else will Panasonic’s disappearance mean for Japanese basketball?

“This could be a blow for the league’s operations because Panasonic did have a lot of say in the board room,” said someone with a deep understanding of the league’s power structure.

He added: “The federation (Japan Basketball Association) has never operated on marketing the game. All they have done over the years is collect registration fees like taxes. As long as people are playing basketball and paying the registration fee, the federation and league will never go under. I don’t agree with this authoritarian system, but it’s the status quo.”

Panasonic’s announcement ought to be a wake-up call for Japanese basketball teams. For the sport’s future survival, business must be done in better, smarter ways here.