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Hitachi forward Rice fondly recalls uncle’s remarkable NFL achievements

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

As much as Darius Rice has been referred to as a basketball player blessed with size and phenomenal skills, he’s probably always been known because of the name of his uncle and former NFL great: Jerry Rice.

But he doesn’t appear to be bothered by that at all. Rather, he seems happy talking about the ex-wide receiver, who’s known as one of the greatest players to ever step onto the gridiron.

“I talk to (Jerry) all the time,” said Rice, a 208-cm forward for the National Basketball League’s Hitachi Sunrockers. “I saw him last summer. He came to Mississippi and we partied, went to my grandmother’s house. Me and him are like a close uncle-nephew relationship.”

And just like a lot of other children back when Jerry was a superstar for the San Francisco 49ers, Darius, now 31, grew up rooting for the team (and of course he didn’t like the Dallas Cowboys).

“I went to three Super Bowls,” Rice said with a grin. “When (the 49ers) beat the (Cincinnati) Bengals (in 1989), I was there. I went to when they beat the (Denver) Broncos (in ’90), and when they beat the (San Diego) Chargers (in ’95).”

Rice, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, added that he’d also go to see Jerry play when the 49ers came near his home state.

“I miss those days,” he said, smiling. “I was a young guy, I was meeting all these superstar players.”

Until he enrolled at the University of Miami, Rice was a two-sport athlete in basketball and football. In basketball, he was selected as a McDonald’s All-American in 2000, along with future NBA players like Zach Randolph and Darius Miles.

But Rice claimed that he was a better football player than a basketball player.

“I was fast, I was tall,” said Rice, who played wide receiver and free safety at Lanier High in Jackson. “I was exciting just like (Jerry). I think I use my football skills to play basketball, running and jumping stuff.”

Rice said that he quit football because he grew too tall, and focused on basketball at Miami, where he averaged 18.8 and 16.9 points as junior and senior, respectively.

After the time at Miami, Rice played in leagues all over the world, such as the United Arab Emirates, Puerto Rico, Bahrain, Uruguay and Venezuela, while he also had stints for three different clubs in the NBA Developmental League.

And Rice landed in Japan this season. Hitachi has struggled, posting a 17-27 record, fifth in the Eastern Conference.

“We’re getting better step by step as a team,” said Rice, who’s the team’s second-leading scorer (14.9 points per game) behind Jamar Smith (15.0). “I think as the season goes along, we’ve grown together. The more we stay together, the better we’ll get.”

Double standard: On Monday, the NBL announced some rule changes for the 2014-15 season. One of the notable modifications is that there’s a reduction in the maximum number of import players a team can use on the court from two to one in the National Basketball Developmental League (NBDL).

But in the NBL, the top league, the figure will remain at two (although the periods quarters in which teams can use them will move from the first and third to the second and fourth and overtime).

One NBDL head coach said that the change didn’t make sense.

“The NBDL is supposed to be a developmental league for the NBL. Why would you not have the same rule?” he said.

Around the league: As interconference play ended last weekend and each club has 10 more games to play in the regular season, some tough battles will be expected.

The league’s hottest team is the Toyota Alvark, who have extended their winning streak to 20. The team, armored with the best defense in the league (69.8 ppg), is only two games behind the Eastern Conference-leading Toshiba Brave Thunders (38-6).

Also, Toyota clinched a playoff spot with a two-game sweep over the Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Dolphins this past weekend.

In the West, the Aisin SeaHorses were once thought to be a rock-solid pick to clinch the first seed for the playoffs, but that though was a bit premature.

The Aichi Prefecture-based club (33-11) has drastically fallen of late, going 3-7 in its last 10 games. It was swept by Toshiba in a two-game series this past weekend. Meanwhile, the Wakayama Trians (32-12) have won their last five contests and put themselves just one game behind Aisin.