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Oita defaults on player salaries, asks league to intervene

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Oita HeatDevils assembled one of the league’s top rosters, a smart collection of veterans, and produced nine victories over their first 14 games, fewer wins than only one club in the 10-team Western Conference — the perennial powerhouse Ryukyu Golden Kings. More of the same appears impossible.

Oita’s financial woes will likely signal the team’s decline as a Final Four-contending team and league officials held talks in recent days, attempting to cobble together enough resources to remain afloat.

A week ago, it was reported that the team did not have the money to meet its financial obligations — ¥7 million — for November payroll — 19 individuals (players and staff).

That led to desperate calls for cash. However, the exact amount of a possible loan from the league to the HeatDevils, who have not made the playoffs since the 2006-07 campaign, to stay in business was unknown at press time, but all of the league insiders The Japan Times contacted this week expect the cash-strapped franchise to slash payroll significantly after main sponsor O-Rid (the team’s primary backer since 2009) severed ties with the team recently.

Which could signal the beginning of the end for Oita, which has been plagued by near-bottom-of-the-pack attendance throughout much of its history, as a competitive force. And the HeatDevils have been a part of the bj-league since its inception as six-team circuit in 2005.

“I am hearing that Oita’s season is going to be saved but still uncertain about whether Oita can pay full salary,” a league source said late Wednesday, adding he expected further details on Thursday.

League spokesman Akihiro Ejima acknowledged in a Wednesday email the team has requested funds from the league to help it achieve “stability,” and said the matter will be further detailed later this week. This included, he said, handling of the team’s players.

The HeatDevils may avoid going out of business or suspending operations — as league officials would prefer to keep the entire 21-team schedule intact — but the team’s competitive skills may drop significantly if players start looking for work elsewhere or are shown the door to meet new budget guidelines.

Center Taj Finger, in his third season with the HeatDevils, said players and staff have been in limbo waiting for a decision to be made.

“Things have been crazy around here and it has indeed been quite frustrating,” Finger said on Tuesday.

“It has been very difficult not knowing what is going on . . .”

The league’s lack of a national TV deal this season — former league network partners BS Fuji and Gaora have not televised games — and non-stop expansion since 2005 have not helped the league enhance its reputation throughout Japan. Inept management and instability for many teams are often hallmarks that potential investors and boosters see when they take a close look at league operations.

Indeed, the HeatDevils’ plight has been a long, drawn-out affair for years.

“Save the HeatDevils” rallies have been an almost annual occurrence, with banners at Ariake Colosseum during past Final Fours, and requests for fan donations on their own website.

Recent efforts included public donation drives at JR Beppu Station in Oita Prefecture and at a local sporting goods store.

(In addition, an Associated Press story on Oita’s dire straits, essentially begging fans for cash, after the 2010-11 season was picked up by several major media outlets, including the USA Today website.)

So none of the details of the current crisis are surprising.

Instead of 100 percent focus on this weekend’s showdown against the defending champion Golden Kings (12-0) in a clash of top West teams, the HeatDevils face this major distraction — in a phrase, the survival question.

“I don’t know anything for certain, but I expect that after the bj-league makes its offer to keep the HeatDevils alive, the salaries available to the players will be significantly lower, and it will be very difficult to keep the team intact,” said Finger, a Stanford University product. “Which makes it a very sad situation because not only is our team one of the best in the league and we think we had a legitimate chance at a championship, but the character of this team is great, and I truly enjoy being around every one of our players.”

Cyrus Tate, a frontcourt standout who played at Iowa, expressed similar sentiments.

“I’m not sure of our future,” Tate said Wednesday. “We have a great group of guys that complement each other and I believe we could have done great things this season. It just seems like the business part of things is not in order and we all use basketball (to make) a living.

“I’m not playing (against Okinawa). They only gave us a little money from our November salary. It wasn’t even half of what they owe. We basically played for free the whole month. And I doubt that we will see the rest of our November salary. They will probably just send us home and not give us what we are owed.”