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Long-term imports still rare in ever-changing league

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

With each passing season, perpetual change on team rosters means dozens of foreign players come and go. And it’s become quite rare for foreign players to spend a large chunk of their careers in the bj-league.

Sure, the league has expanded rapidly — from six teams in 2005-06 to 21 for the upcoming season, which tips off in October — but player movement remains as common as humming cicadas in August. Here today, gone tomorrow; a bigger paycheck in another country is often a factor.

Kyoto’s David Palmer, Ryukyu’s Jeff Newton and Saitama’s John “Helicopter” Humphrey form a fraternity of three, the trio of import players who were in the league in 2005 and are on team rosters for the 2013-14 campaign.

Most of the league’s import players have been here for three or fewer seasons.

On the other hand, Rizing Fukuoka center Julius Ashby and power forward Reggie Warren both played for the championship runnerup Takamatsu Five Arrows in the league’s second season and have both spent most of the past decade, with additional time in other leagues, in Japan,

The well-traveled, high-scoring forward Josh Peppers, now with the Iwate Big Bulls, has played in the league since the 2007-08 season, while suiting up for Fukuoka (two stints, including a championship runnerup last season), Sendai, Hamamatsu and Shiga. And 2012-13 regular-season MVP Anthony McHenry is entering his sixth season with the Golden Kings.

In addition, now-retired league legend Lynn Washington, who helped guide the Osaka Evessa to three consecutive championships in the league’s first three seasons, was the rare exception in this league: a foreign player who was a franchise cornerstone. Newton and Palmer were Washington’s teammates on that powerhouse squad.

Newton’s move to the Golden Kings for the 2008-09 season shifted the balance of power in the league, with the Okinawa-based club capturing its first title that spring. He is the only five-time title winner in league history.

Seven-time All-Star guard Cohey Aoki, who joined Fukuoka in the offseason, recognizes the historical value and long-time contributions of the players cited above.

“It is really great for Japanese basketball to have John, Jeff, and David playing for this league,” Aoki told The Japan Times on Wednesday evening.

“I think it is important for teams to keep their core players for a long period of time because it can attract more fans to see them.”

Aoki has spent most of his career in Tokyo, playing for the now-defunct Tokyo Apache (2005-11) and Tokyo Cinq Reves last season, with a one-year stint with the Evessa sandwiched between those Tokyo years.

The most recognized Japanese star in league history, Aoki said the league should aim for roster stability.

“I wish the league can take care of those players in several ways,” he said, referring specifically to foreign players.

“The league tends to focus more on young players, which is also important, but bj-league veterans have been through a lot in tough situations and experiences.

“It is not good for fans to see brand new teams each year getting new players, both Japanese and imports.”

Aoki said expressing stronger support for the league’s import players is the right thing to do.

“I personally feel all the import players should be recognized and loved more as great basketball players, team members and people by fans and communities no matter what countries they are from,” said Aoki, who got married this summer.

Humphrey, Aoki’s former Apache teammate and three-time league scoring champion, is in his second tour of duty in Japan. He starred for Tokyo from 2005-09 during the Joe “Jellybean” Bryant era, and is now preparing for his third season for the Saitama Broncos.

“For me, it’s and honor to have been here from Day One,” Humphrey said, recalling the Apache’s 93-90 victory over Niigata in their league debut on Nov. 5, 2005. “I played and won the first game ever in this league,” was the way he remembered that day.

“To see the league and Japanese players grow — (including former teammates) Cohey, (Masashi) Joho and Jumpei (Nakama) — it’s like watching your kids grow up,” added Humphrey, who finished his college career at Middle Tennessee State.

Since the league’s inception, Humphrey’s powerful slam dunks and gutsy forays through the lane have been signature highlights, giving the boosters plenty to get excited about.

“The fans are, and have been, unbelievable since Day One,” Humphrey said. “Win or lose, they are there with a smile on their face, giving gifts after the game.”

The North Carolina native admitted he feels blessed to be an integral figure in the league’s growth, playing in two championship games to date (in May 2008 and the same month in ’09) and erupting for 52 points in a December 2011 game, for example.

“The league will continue to grow,” Humphrey said. “I am glad I can say I have been here since Day One. And I will retire in Japan. Just love it here.”

A mentor’s perspective: Reggie Geary garnered 2011-12 Coach of the Year honors and guided the Yokohama B-Corsairs to back-to-back Final Four appearances and a championship last season.

As much as anyone, the former Yokohama bench boss knows what Michael Katsuhisa’s strengths are in terms of strategy, basketball IQ and working with players. After all, Katsuhisa was Geary’s assistant the past two seasons.

Now, both men have new jobs, with Geary moving on to be the Chiba Jets head coach in the NBL and Katsuhisa replacing him. (Chiba defected from the bj-league after two seasons.)

Geary told The Japan Times that Katsuhisa is dedicated to his job and has proven himself to be a capable coach.

“From the first day until the end of last season, Michael really grew as an assistant coach and in his understanding of what the job entailed,” Geary said of the former Osaka Evessa player. “He’s very confident in his own abilities, is likable, and has a passion for the NBA game and how it’s played.

“I found him to have a good basketball mind in assisting with game-time decisions and an excellent work ethic. Michael will do a good job in his first head coaching opportunity, and I hope the organization is patient in giving him a chance to develop his vision.”

Ishizaki update: Former Shimane Susanoo Magic guard Takumi Ishizaki, who spent the past two seasons with Chemnitz 99 in the German ProA League, returned to Germany Wednesday.

He’s currently practicing with the top-flight MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg of the Basketball Bundesliga.

Ishizaki’s agent, Lothar Hermeling, told this newspaper that “the team needs him and Takumi is doing this to stay in shape.”

That doesn’t mean that he’s a lock to suit up for Ludwigsburg this season.

“At the same time, I (am) shopping him around in Europe,” Hermeling confirmed.

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

Editor’s note: The notebook will next appear in early October.