/

Shame game in Oita: Players rip team, allege fraud

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The on-the-verge-of-bankruptcy Oita HeatDevils will field an undermanned team this weekend at home, a squad that’s a cheap imitation of the 12-man unit that had the potential to reach the Final Four this season.

And then it’ll be back to the drawing board with a new HeatDevil club, minus key ingredients to the team’s success so far this season.

Oita doesn’t have the money to pay its players, and the team’s four imports — Wendell White (UNLV product, former league MVP), Cyrus Tate (Iowa) and Taj Finger and Matt Lottich (both Stanford) — will be gone in the coming days. The paper that their contracts was printed on is now worthless.

“We have been told that the Oita HeatDevils will go bankrupt, all the Americans are being cut and will receive no further compensation,” Finger told The Japan Times on Thursday evening. “The bj-league is going to start a new Oita HeatDevils company, keep all the Japanese players and bring in two or three cheaper American players.”

The aforementioned talented quartet, a major part of the team’s strong start won’t suit up against the league-leading Ryukyu Golden Kings (12-0) in what should’ve been a terrific series featuring a pair of top Western Conference squads. At 9-5, Oita is tied with the Shimane Susanoo Magic for the second-best record in the 10-team West.

Oita’s four American players have not practiced this week.

Individually, before the bankruptcy announcement becomes official and they are released, all four decided not to play against Ryukyu. It’s not an organized boycott, the players said in individual interviews Thursday, but fits under the broad categories of “common sense” and “protest.”

Risking injury when a contract isn’t being honored by management leaves them open to potential career-threatening injuries while at the same time looking for job opportunities elsewhere.

“The team didn’t request us not to play. We haven’t been paid, so we are not playing,” Tate said.

And that drastically reduces the motivation for fans to shell out their hard-earned money to watch the home team put a product on the floor that is vastly inferior to the one that has been one of the bj-league’s top clubs this season.

“To say the Americans are boycotting this weekend’s games is not the right way to put it,” Finger wrote in an email. “You cannot boycott a team, when that team does not exist.

“To this point, the Americans have only received a small portion of our paychecks for November (20 percent, one source estimated), and were told that the team is going to go bankrupt. So we effectively played a whole month, November, for less than half our guaranteed money, and we have no hope of further compensation.”

Of course, this is where a players union could step in and demand action, perhaps a lawsuit, longtime critics of the league have pointed out.

“We knew the team was going to go bankrupt before the Miyazaki games and still after learning this information we decided to play our games against Miyazaki out of respect for our coach and the Japanese players on our team. And, by doing so, risked injury with no safety net,” Finger said, referring to last weekend’s games, when he, Lottich and Tate suited up. White did not play.

He added: “So if we did happen to get injured we would have no team to play for because Oita would be bankrupt, and this would also discourage other teams from signing us. The Americans on the team have gone above and beyond their responsibilities for the HeatDevils.”

At the same time, team management has refused to provide details to its foreign players, according to Tate.

“They are not doing anything nor telling us anything,” he said Thursday. “We have been waiting here for four days now trying to figure out what’s going on.”

Making matters worse, a team meeting was held Wednesday, and none of the Americans were invited to it, Lottich said, noting he didn’t even know about it until after the fact.

“I’m not too happy about that,” he said by phone from Beppu, Oita Prefecture.

“This has been a real eye-opening experience here for the American players,” added Lottich, a former Stanford University guard who was a major star on the Osaka Evessa’s championship dynasty.

Tate, for one, is outraged by the league’s plan to conduct business as usual this weekend, with the Golden Kings arriving in Oita, to play a pair of games they’ll probably win by 50 or more points.

“I don’t see how we can afford to have the games against Okinawa and the team cannot afford to pay the players. It’s not right,” Tate said.

“I just want my money. . . . You always hear good things about Japan being a country that’s honorable, has no problems and pays on time. Seems like things are changing.

“The Americans are not playing, but the Japanese guys probably will. (The organization) will probably lie and try to make the Americans look bad, but this is exactly what is happening. We even did the organization a favor and played last week versus Miyazaki.”

For the foreseeable future, increased responsibilities will be placed on the shoulders of Japanese veterans Kazuya “J.” Hatano and Daishi Hayakawa in the frontcourt and guards Kohei Mitomo, Naoto Takushi and Taishiro Shimizu, among others as second-year coach Yukinori Suzuki words to effectively build a new rotation.

Lottich is ticked off, too.

“There’s no way they are going to be able to keep us,” Lottich said of the team’s imports. “So why am I practicing?

“The Oita situation is very unfortunate, especially for me. I’ve got three kids (including a newborn baby) and a wife here. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to wait (here). I plan to go home and look at another league, possibly in Germany.”

Other bj-league teams, sources said, are probably unwilling to increase their budget by adding one of Oita’s foreign players. And Lottich doesn’t want to wait around for that rejection.

Sadly, Lottich said, the HeatDevils were on the verge of something special this season. Oita has never had one of the league’s top fan bases, but a strong foundation was in place and a 38- to 40-win season and a trip to the Final Four could’ve created a lasting impression in Kyushu.

“There was a buzz in this city,” said Lottich, in his fourth season with the HeatDevils. Now, “there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Will the re-launched HeatDevils find a way to resonate with the general public after the franchise is essentially ordered to gut its product in order to land a loan from the league to survive?

That remains to be seen. But this latest metaphorical reshuffling of the deck may just be a cosmetic attempt to avoid the inevitable: Oita, once and for all, drops out of the league for good.

***

On the move: Former Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix point guard Jermaine Dixon has joined the expansion Gunma Crane Thunders (1-15), giving coach Ryan Blackwell’s squad its first import player with experience and, most important, proven success in this league. Dixon was named to the 2011-12 Best Five squad and made a major impact for the 2010-11 Phoenix championship squad and runnerup team last season.

“We needed some leadership and playmakers. He’ll open things up for everybody, especially our shooters,” Blackwell said earlier this week.

The Crane Thunders have dropped forward Nyika Williams from their roster.

Dixon played, according to asia-basket.com, four games for MLP Academics Heidelberg in the Germany ProA League this season.

Meanwhile, sources have told The Japan Times the Akita Northern Happinets have signed 3-point specialist Dan Fitzgerald, who suited up for the Sendai 89ers last season before moving on to the Argentine League. An official news release by Akita is expected within the next few days.

Williams has joined the Broncos, it was announced on Friday. He appeared in 15 contests for Gunma, averaging 9.6 points and 9.4 rebounds, while shooting 44.3 percent from the field.

Saitama has parted ways with forwards Randy Orr (10.2 points and 6.6 rebounds in 10 games) and Antwan Scott (10 games, 10.6 points and 5.8 rebounds).

A league insider said on Friday, “They needed players. They cut Randy and Antwan. One or both of those two went back to the U.S. during their bye week, and then refused to return to Saitama.”

Upcoming games: In addition to the Oita-Ryukyu showdown, the following nine Saturday-Sunday series are scheduled: Iwate vs. Shinshu, a showcase of much-improved second-year Eastern Conference franchises; Niigata vs. Akita; Chiba vs. Sendai; Tokyo vs. Saitama; Yokohama vs. Toyama; Hamamatsu vs. Takamatsu; Shiga vs. Shimane; Kyoto vs. Miyazaki; and Osaka vs. Fukuoka.

***

Got a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp