Masayuki Kabaya wanted Hideki Mitsui to shoot the rock. Actually, he was daring him to shoot it.
Kabaya had just drained a 3-pointer in their one-on-one basketball semifinal match at the Red Bull King of the Rock Japan tournament Saturday afternoon, and instead of getting in a defensive position, Kabaya put his right hand in Mitsui’s face and motioned for him to shoot, right then and right there, if he had the guts. Mitsui stared Kabaya down, obliged, and drained the bucket as the crowd roared.
It wasn’t a display one usually sees in an organized game, but this wasn’t a normal contest.
There were no back screens, no pick-and-rolls, or hi-lows. Just basketball, stripped down to its purest form. Two players and a ball. High score wins.
For one afternoon a segment of the Japanese basketball establishment let its hair down and gave way to streetball, a style that doesn’t recognize labels, only skill.
“I think it’s good there are so many different styles,” Kabaya said after the tournament.
Kabaya is a professional, the reigning bj-league three-point king and the league’s playoff MVP for the champion Yokohama B-Corsairs. Mitsui also plays, but not at the pro level. On Saturday, they were equals. Well, Mitsui was a little more equal seeing as he won the 5-minute game 18-17 to advance to the final, in which he also prevailed.
“We’re the same age,” the 30-year-old Mitsui said. “He was a superstar when we were in high school, and now he’s a pro. So he’s always been ahead of me. I didn’t expect I’d be able to play against a guy like that.”
The other professional player, Kazuyuki Nakagawa, a former All-Star in the U.S. minor league American Basketball Association, didn’t fare well either, falling to Chihiro Ikeda in the unforgiving one-on-one format.
“I think it’s a format where you can’t make any excuses if you lose,” Nakagawa said. “It’s as simple as that. Chihiro totally kicked my butt.”
The tournament had all the flair and style associated with famous streetball circuits in the U.S.
The scene was wholly reminiscent of an And1 Mix Tape production. The court was situated in the center of a dance floor in the expansive Ageha nightclub, and loud music blasted throughout the proceedings.
The atmosphere was club-like when the lights dimmed and still far from normal when they brightened during the action on the gray-colored court.
Roaming the floor alongside the players during games was MC Mamuchi, who was equal parts coach (“nice shot, good move”) and trash talker (“losers go home”) to the competitors as he provided a running commentary for those in attendance.
“Take a chill pill,” he cooed when Susumu Ebihara complained about a non-foul call. When Shuji Ato managed to score after a spin move, Mamushi playfully yelled out, “you lucky boy.” He dubbed Kenta Nakamura “Super Fresh” and playfully referred to the night’s lone bj-league participant as “Mr. Kabaya.”
“It’s frustrating that I lost, but I enjoyed the whole atmosphere here today,” Kabaya said.
Nakagawa expressed similar sentiments.
“I had some pressure (as a pro),” he said. “But I came because I’ve forgotten some important things recently. I was here to get those things back.”
Saturday’s tournament was about earning a trip to San Francisco to compete in the Red Bull King of the Rock World Finals, scheduled to be held in San Francisco at Alcatraz Island on Sept. 28.
Mitsui will head there as Japan’s representative and part of a 64-man bracket.
“I’ve been to Paris for a 5-on-5 tournament and I was in New York to play basketball for a month last year,” Mitsui said. “What I learned from those experiences is that it’s so much different physically (playing with foreign players). It’s more apparent when you play one-on-one.”
The one-on-one format was different for most of the competitors on Saturday, as many were used to playing in the regular 5-on-5 environment or in 3-on-3 games.
Even so, there were advantages to be had and lessons to be tucked away for the future.
“Raising your level individual skill set leads to raising your play in a team setting,” Kabaya said. “So it’s really important.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.