Tokyo Excellence shooting for NBDL championship

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Tokyo Excellence, who are in their first season in the National Basketball Development League (formerly the JBL2), have posted a splendid 29-3 record to date. The club is aiming to win the championship in the four-team playoffs this weekend.

“It’s unbelievable, because we are a first-year (NBDL) organization,” said Olson, whose Excellence finished second in the regular season behind the Toyota Tsusho Fighting Eagles (30-2). “And in Tokyo, it’s hard to have a professional team and be successful because of fans, money, sponsors. So we did a great job, putting them together quickly.”

The Excellence are not a completely unknown club in Japan basketball circles. The club first competed in the All-Japan Championships, also known as the Emperor’s Cup, in 2002. (In addition, Bob Pierce, who has coached in both the JBL and bj-league, was the team’s first bench boss from 2002-05.)

Tokyo’s main weapons are a pair of Americans, center Joe Wolfinger (211 cm) and center/forward Markhuri Sanders (200 cm). Wolfinger was third in scoring (23.0 points) and fourth in rebounding (13.5) in the league, while Sanders was first in rebounding (15.2) and second in field-goal percentage (57.3). Veteran point guard Satoshi Miyata led the league in assists (4.7) and was third in steals (1.8).

Also, the Excellence excelled on defense. They gave up the fewest points per game (62.28) in the nine-team NBDL. They were the only club that went unbeaten at home (19-0).

In the playoffs, which will be held at Himaraya Arena in Gifu, the Excellence will face the Aisin AW Areions (20-12) in a one-game semifinal series. If they win it, then they’ll battle for the title against the winner of the other semifinal clash between Toyota Tsusho and the TGI D-Rise (17-15) in Sunday’s final.

“We want to win the championship,” said Olson, who previously served as an assistant for the National Basketball League’s Link Tochigi Brex during the team’s JBL days and for the NBDL’s Renova Kagoshima as head coach. “I think that’s a great story. We can win it in our first year.”

All three of Tokyo’s three losses have come against Toyota Tsusho.

Olson, a 34-year-old Portland, Oregon native, confidently said that his team could compete in the top league, the NBL.

“Of course, (but) it takes a little bit of time to get better and experienced in the NBL,” he said.

Before the 2013-14 campaign, the Excellence played several preseason games, official and unofficial, including a pair of contests against bj-league teams (Tokyo beat the Yokohama B-Corsairs 91-61), a few games against NBL teams, a game against a collegiate team and a game against the Korean Basketball League’s Anyang KGC (the Excellence lost 66-55).

In the games against NBL teams, it appears that the Excellence fared well enough. It makes you think that, at the very least, Tokyo could play better than some of the league’s weaker teams.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll do great,” Olson said. “My foreign players are top-league players. And I have some really good Japanese players.”

But the transition to the NBL isn’t easy, primarily because of financial concerns. Having enough money to run a team is a tough challenge for most of Japan’s clubs, no matter which league they compete in.

Excellence president and general manager Shuichi Tsuji, who’s also a sports doctor, cited a top corporate team in the NBL as an example. That club has a budget of ¥400 million for one season, while his club operates on less than one-fourth of that. (That said, budget constraints can limit marketing and promotion efforts.)

That is why Tokyo won’t rush to make a decision too quickly.

And, as Olson mentioned earlier, the team’s home location in Tokyo perhaps gives it an extra challenge. There are several basketball clubs in the NBL and bj-league in the Tokyo metropolitan area, but most of them have struggled to draw much attention from local citizens. That’s put those teams in difficult financial situations; the Tokyo Apache, for instance, folded after the 2010-11 bj-league season. (Despite the situation, Kanto will feature an NBDL expansion club, the Earth Friends Tokyo Z, for the 2014-15 season.)

“I definitely think that way,” Olson said, when asked if he thought that the Tokyo teams have faced hard times because there are other attractions nearby.

“In Shibuya, there are so many things to do,” he said with a laugh.

Tsuji agreed that the team must first look to lay a foundation so it can eventually gain recognition. Once it’s achieved that to some degree, then the club will be ready to perform at a higher level, he added.

The Japan Basketball Association has recently announced that it would establish a new professional league for the 2016-17 season. For the Excellence, that’s a suitable timetable to make another fresh start.

“We are currently shooting for 2016, when the new pro league starts,” Tsuji said.