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Time for FIBA to suspend JBA, force necessary changes to be made

by Ed Odeven

The Japan Basketball Association has changed its alleged goal so many times, it’s difficult to remember the original target.

Nearly a decade ago, there was real talk about a JBA-backed pro league.

Here’s what bj-league commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi told the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in October 2005 before the renegade upstart circuit began its first season: “In 2007, the JBL will also become a pro league. What I am thinking now is, ‘Can we collaborate?’ ”

Nothing happened.

Why? The JBA excels at three things: wasting time at meetings, archaic bureaucracy and sabotaging progress.

Fast forward to 2014, and there are 21 current bj-league teams, minus the defunct Tokyo Apache and Miyazaki Shining Suns and Chiba Jets, who defected after last season (more on them later), with more expansion in the works, including the Fukushima Firebonds for the 2014-15 campaign.

With mind-numbing resistance to progress within the JBL, the six-team bj-league was formed as a breakaway league with two JBL clubs (Niigata Albirex BB and Saitama Broncos) and four new franchises. It has been the first (and only) professional basketball league in Japan since then.

There are a few pro teams in the National Basketball League, the renamed JBL, but most still operate as divisions within large corporations, not as a professional basketball companies. The NBL has gotten bigger, though, enticing the Jets to bolt from the bj-league and fielding a 12-team circuit this season, with the Hiroshima Dragonflies joining the fold next fall.

All of the above isn’t particularly riveting drama. But it has remained on FIBA’s radar for quite some time. In fact, basketball’s world governing body hasn’t put much stock in the JBA’s grandiose visions. (A February 2011 plan for a 36-team merger for 2013 between the bj-league, JBL and JBL2 was rejected by its board)

Time marches on. Sadly, evidence of real progress doesn’t exist.

Did you know that top FIBA leaders’ second official visit to Tokyo within the past half-decade occurred in December (this happened after February 2009 talks that solved nothing), when they reminded the JBA of the need for the bj-league, NBL and NBDL to come together for the betterment of the sport?

After the latest meeting, which FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann attended, JBA deputy chairman Yasuhiko Fukatsu told reporters, “We need to work on the homework we were given from FIBA.”

There are 215 member nations within FIBA. How many of them have been visited by FIBA and urged to do their “homework” in recent years?

Which is why it’s time to end the nonsense. FIBA has shown patience, given important advice and, frankly, wasted its precious time.

FIBA should immediately suspend JBA’s member nation status — cutting Japan off from all international events — until the impasse between the bj-league, NBL, NBDL (revamped JBL2) and JBA is sorted out, with a clear organizational structure and workable business framework for the next 20 years for men’s professional basketball in Japan. (And don’t forget: The Japanese Olympic Committee suspended the dysfunctional JBA in 2008. The crisis was described as “persistent infighting” at the time, and coming after despite having from 1997 to 2006 to plan accordingly, the JBA amassed a reported debt of ¥1.3 billion at the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship.)

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I offer the above suggested ban with one clarification: The Japan women’s national team, the FIBA Asia Championship for Women gold medalist last fall, ought to be given a chance to compete in the 2014 FIBA World Championship for Women in the fall based on last year’s terrific accomplishment. But other than that, it’s time to drop the hammer.

The JBA’s deadline should have expired by now. Do this, FIBA: Revoke the JBA’s priviledges and play hard ball.

As expected, several attempts by Hoop Scoop seeking comment from FIBA and FIBA Asia about this issue were unsuccessful. No surprise there; FIBA officials want to steer clear of controversy.

Others, however, are not shy about speaking out on the absurdities of the status quo.

“I’m not an expert on FIBA, but in the best interest for Japanese basketball the leagues need to come together as did the old ABA and NBA,” said one longtime pro coach who has worked in Japan. “They should go with a championship division, and a second division, where if you win second division you go up, and if you lose in the championship division, you go down.

“At the very least, they should have the winners of the bj-league playing the winners of the NBL, and have games against each other during the course of the year.

“Competition is good, and the better the competition then the better the players and teams get. Administrators need to put the game first. From an outsider’s view, it seems to be very political, and the game comes second.”

Instead of forcing the JBA to stop talking and actually finalize a plan, FIBA is enabling it to keep stalling, schedule more meetings and keep changing the target.

FIBA can threaten to take away Japan’s automatic team berth for the Olympic basketball tournament for the 2020 Summer Games, but the view here is JBA, which is desperately in need of an entire new set of leaders (with a real vision), will simply offer lip service and some cosmetic window dressing to make it appear that real changes have been implemented.

So, I suggest once more, FIBA: Put the JBA on probation. Suspend it.

This is a necessary step.

For once and for all, a plan must be established. And not another target a year or two down the line for teams (NBL, NBDL, bj-league) to be invited to the new concoction, with the “P” league (in 2016-17) replacing the NBL, which replaced the JBL, which has also been dubbed the Super League in the past. That’s not a concrete strategy, not by an stretch of the imagination, especially with three already revealed committees set to meet on various aspects of the newest JBA-backed league.

Where’s the cohesive plan, something that’s not as complex as human DNA?

Who’s actually calling the shots?

Is anyone capable of being the JBA’s much-needed visionary leader?

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According to multiple experts who follow the nation’s entire hoops landscape, there are 391 current colleges and universities with men’s basketball teams in Japan. It’s an untapped players market that can only get better with unity, cooperation and common sense ruling the day.

Those current players and prospective Japanese student-athletes deserve a clear and identifiable route to pursue a pro career, and with one annual national draft that unifies all of Japan’s pro and quasi-pro teams (42 combined teams within the bj-league, NBL and NBDL are competing in the 2013-14 season).

The current jumbled mess presents no clear path for all wanna-be and sure-shot Japanese pro players, and no hierarchical structure for the entire sport — from worst to best.

Reaching out to a wide range of basketball contacts throughout the country, I’ve received no comments that convey the belief that the “P” league plan is a big, bold step in the right direction. (Some suggest it’s simply telling FIBA what it wants to hear.)

One basketball insider offered a detailed look at the JBA’s fundamental problems, including the so-called revamped top league.

“The NBL is obviously a JBA-backed organization and when they created the current new league tried to dictate and demand to the bj-league what they would do and how they would fit into it all,” the source said.

“To my way of thinking, this was pretty much why the bj league was formed in the first place.

“The bj league, with all of its problems, does do several things that the NBL is not doing well. The entertainment, the attempts to get in the community and create a fan base, and obviously letting more athletic imports onto the floor. Now we all know there are varying levels of success and there are competent and not-so-competent front offices.

“The other big issue is that the corporate teams do not want to be pros. Someone would have to research the tax laws or other potential reasons why the corporate teams are so against being professional, but obviously the loss of those teams, their money, their training facilities and the rest will be another big blow to basketball here.”

So what about FIBA forcing the JBA to gets its act together ASAP?

“It would be difficult to get FIBA to penalize the entire program and especially the women who are doing so much better than the men,” the source said. “I believe that FIBA will continue to try to exert pressure with the Olympics and that effective change is not going to come to basketball here for 10 or more years.

“I think they will try to qualify for the Olympics in the traditional way here, they will offer money to FIBA or otherwise.”

Or some mutually agreed-upon lip service may be the “solution” in 2018 or ’19 to make things look more rosy before the Tokyo Olympics. But if that happens, things will probably just return to normal — JBA-generated apathy and ineptitude — after the Olympics.

“I hate to sound so pessimistic but the decision makers are the same people that have put them into this position and the plan for the new league is based on a lot of ‘hopes and wishes’ which is not how a successful organization is built,” the source said.

“I would love to see the JBA take a page from Sony or Nissan and bring in a successful, strong-willed foreign basketball professional to ‘clean house.’ Someone who has nothing but the best interests of basketball and the youth in mind and could make real decisions without worrying about offending ‘old friends.’ ”

Jo Kurino, who in 2005 became the No. 1 draft pick in bj-league history, has played extensively in the JBL and now suits up for the NBL’s Kumamoto Volters, sees the problems of Japan pro basketball’s ambiguous identity.

“To be honest, I think to have two different leagues can cause confusion for fans and other stakeholders but it’s not mandatory to go professional,” Kurino told Hoop Scoop recently. “If that’s the case, there are a lot of nations under the FIBA umbrella that don’t have a professional league. However, it’s not a coincidence that those nations are not quite competitive on the international stage. So not professionalizing is not the main issue. The biggest issue is the impasse that exists between both leagues. The NBA is not exactly under the USA Basketball umbrella, but they have a partnership with USAB, and are very cooperative. If both leagues were cooperative between each other and didn’t try to cause a social stir in the basketball realm, this wouldn’t be such a big issue.

“Once-in-a-month events are good for posing, but what really needs to happen is for the JBA to open some space in their offices to formulate a focus group/task team to expedite the merger process. Even if it’s a not a merger, it should be a task team office for the so-called ‘new league.’ And yes, a representative or two from the bj-league should have a desk in there. The big wigs can show up once a month, but there should be designated staff there on duty five days out of the week so all involved parties can iron out any wrinkles that exist to delay such a formulation for a new league.”

He added: “The newly formed task force should require all existing teams and teams that are interested in expansion to submit formal paper for inclusion of the new league. I always believed that the screening process for both leagues was shoddy at best. It’s time to stringently weed out solvent and non-solvent teams. If a franchise’s financials are weak, they can be provided an alternative to join the second division, if there is one.”

Hope for the best, but expect the worst.

That’s my conclusion for this tangled mess, especially if FIBA doesn’t suspend the JBA.