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Players give ultimatum to Oita, plan appeal to FIBA

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Like a veteran boxer with 75 bouts on his resume, the Oita HeatDevils’ American quartet —Wendell White, Matt Lottich, Taj Finger and Cyrus Tate — is not going down without a fight.

They’ve laced up their gloves, so to speak, and are headed into the metaphorical ring for a no-holds-barred fight against HeatDevils management and the league.

One of the aforementioned players’ lawyers has crafted a settlement agreement and all four have customized it and issued it to HeatDevils management, demanding payment in full for their work in November — they are still waiting payment after the bankrupt team defaulted on salaries — or else the matter will be taken to FIBA, basketball’s world governing body, The Japan Times learned late Friday evening.

The detailed document, a copy of which was obtained by this reporter, spells out clearly that the HeatDevils players are demanding to be immediately released from their contracts, and this also includes letters of clearance so they can begin shopping their services to other teams in Japan and around the world.

For each player, the settlement agreement states all money must be paid “no later than Jan. 1,” and if it’s late, additional fines will be added every day thereafter.

Continued delays in resolving these matters have tested the HeatDevils imports’ patience. In short, they are outraged.

“Well, since the bj-league has taken over the team it seems like all the decisions that go on for this team are made by the league,” Tate, averaging 15.6 points in 14 games, told The Japan Times.

“In our meeting (Friday), which took four days to happen, we were told that Oita Heat Inc., still exists, but the bj-league makes the decisions for this team but under a new company. So the question is: Who are we working for? They say we are getting new contracts, but we haven’t seen anything?”

A day later, Tate said he was told all four will not receive new contracts and that they will not be retained by the team, which is now undertaking massive budget-cutting measures.

“Why are the HeatDevils keeping this bankrupt Oita Inc., that we are under contract with, still in existence? We all gave the team a simple settlement to give us our money that we earned and send us on our way,” Tate said. “But they say they don’t have the money to do that and they have to talk to the bj-league.”

But by definition, the league is now in charge of the team, sources confirmed.

“Of course the bj-league likes to take their time with serious issues such as this,” Tate added, “so we continue to sit here not make any money and play the waiting game. I wish someone with some power can give us some answers and stop sending their puppets. We will be sending complaints to FIBA because this is a very serious matter. And this could hurt the league and its reputation.”

Lottich, who won three championships with the Osaka Evessa (2005-08), revealed Friday by phone that the league will delay announcing a re-launched HeatDevils company until Monday, conveniently doing so a day after the Oita-Ryukyu Golden Kings series concludes in Beppu, Oita Prefecture.

League board member Tatsuya Abe will be in charge of the team, Lottich said, and appointed as its new general manager.

Lottich, though, is angered by the way this has been handled, what with all Japanese players on the team already offered contracts for the new company, while he and his American teammates have not had their reasonable requests met.

“To use assets of a former company to form a new team, that’s not right,” Lottich told The Japan Times.

“If you’re bankrupt, you sell your assets . . . but the bj-league is using them (for a new company),” he added.

On Tuesday, the four American players will meet with a local attorney in Oita to continue discussing their legal fight against the team and the bj-league.

The shaky history of the HeatDevils organization has seen several crises since the league’s inception in 2005, including late owner Vince Rawl’s short stint in charge, when sources said he bailed out on the team during the height of the financial meltdown in 2008.

Despite Oita’s poor attendance over the years, a weak market and a dubious reputation when it comes to legitimate sponsorship, the league appears to insist the franchise is viable in the long run.

Others disagree vehemently and chastised league officials for their handling of the situation.

“Now, please tell me why they would want to even consider re-launching the Heat Devils in Oita again after all of this?” former Oita coach Brian Rowsom wrote in an email from Qatar. “The bottom line is they have no fan base there and no one seems to care. The should dissolve them once and for all.

“There are a few loyal local fans in the Oita/Beppu area who love the HeatDevils, but the majority of the people there are not interested in basketball. . . .

“It’s time to pull the plug on the HeatDevils and take them off of life support.”

Another Japan hoop insider put it this way: “The league has shown a consistent inability to anticipate major problems, and then only offers a weak or tepid response at best.

“Oita is facing yet another financial crisis. But this is just the continuation of the same four-year long problem that the league puts off dealing with.”

O-Rid has been the team’s main sponsor since 2009, but backed out of its agreement with the team, even though more than 40 contests were remaining on Oita’s 52-game schedule at the time.

“Yes, O-Rid basically screwed us over by pulling out their sponsorship,” Finger said Friday. “But it was a combination of them and our team president not knowing how to manage the team.”