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Brown, Toyama aspiring to capture bj-league crown

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

If your only task during a basketball game involved jotting down Ira Brown’s statistics, you’d stay pretty busy.

The Toyama Grouses forward is third in the league in minutes played and one of the most dependable players in all facets of the game.

The numbers tell the story. The Gonzaga University product is Toyama’s second-leading scorer (16.8 points per game) and second-leading rebounder (10.0), plus second in steals (68), third in assists (149) and No. 1 in blocked shots (46).

On Sunday, a 91-69 Toyama triumph, Brown’s 13 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and one block were essential elements of his team’s 36th victory of the season. In a nutshell, that game framed Brown’s largest contributions during the long season.

Game after game, he’s a relentless presence at both ends of the court, a key factor in the team’s ascension to title contender under second-year coach Bob Nash, a former NBA forward and ex-University of Hawaii bench boss.

The Grouses climbed into a tie for first place in the 11-team Eastern Conference on Sunday, when the Sendai 89ers defeated the Akita Northern Happinets by 21 points.

With identical 36-10 records, Toyama and Akita now face a compelling race to the finish line to close out the regular season and secure the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. (The Grouses are 3-1 against coach Kazuo Nakamura’s Happinets this season. On Feb. 15 and 16, Toyama earned 101-88 and 90-85 wins. On Dec. 7, Akita defeated Toyama 87-77 in the teams’ first encounter this season, and then dropped an 83-77 decision the next day.)

“To tie for first place with Akita is big, but we want to be in the driver’s seat and win the conference,” Brown told The Japan Times on Monday. “With six games remaining, I think it is possible, but we must stay humble and just do our jobs.

“We have far bigger goals than to only win the conference championship, and for that to be a must we have to continue to work hard and not allow fame to detour us.”

The Grouses have increased their regular-season win total for four consecutive seasons — 13 in 2010-11, to 25 in 2011-12, then 35 last season and this season’s franchise record total — and that has helped the Grouses’ popularity increase and the accompanying fan excitement rise in Toyama, too.

Brown, in his third season with the Grouses, recognizes the significance of the team’s perpetual improvement.

“Everyone is extremely happy here in Toyama, which we all love,” Brown said, summing up the sentiments of the entire organization. “But our agenda does not stop now. I love that fact that I have been a part of history every year that I have been here in Toyama. Hard work pays off.”

Brown himself can attest to that. He, however, took the path less traveled, playing minor league baseball for five seasons (a pitcher, he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the eighth round of the 2001 amateur draft) before eventually enrolling at Gonzaga at age 25.

Another unique fact about this Toyama team: Masashi Joho is the league’s lone Japanese player to be his team’s top scorer. Joho’s 17.0 ppg also places him at No.8 in the entire league.

Looking ahead, Toyama has four of final six games before the playoffs at home, including this weekend’s series against the Aomori Wat’s (23-21 through Sunday) and April 26 and 27 matches against the Tokyo Cinq Reves (12-32). The Grouses take on the host Sendai 89ers (22-22) on April 12 and 13.

Akita, meanwhile, plays host to the Iwate Big Bulls (32-12) and Tokyo over the next two weekends, then faces the reigning champion Yokohama B-Corsairs (19-25) in the season’s final weekend in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Upcoming schedule: Starting Wednesday night, the Oita HeatDevils and Bambitious Nara were set to begin four games in five days against each other in Oita. Two of those games are makeups from Oct. 25-26, which were postponed due to a typhoon. In addition to the aforementioned, Akita-Iwate and Toyama-Aomori showdowns, the Saturday-Sunday series are Niigata vs. Ryukyu, Shinshu vs. Saitama, Tokyo vs. Sendai, Shiga vs. Hamamatsu, Shimane vs. Fukuoka and Takamatsu vs. Kyoto. Gunma faces visiting Yokohama on Sunday and Monday.

League leaders: Fukuoka’s Cohey Aoki is first in 3-point shooting accuracy (46.8 percent) and Akita’s Shigehiro Taguchi is second (45.2), while Kyoto’s David Palmer is third (43.9). Iwate’s Gyno Pomare is first in field-goal percentage (59.9), followed by Gunma’s Dillion Sneed (59.7) and Ryukyu’s Kibwe Trim (58.2).