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JBA vacillates as clock ticks on possible FIBA suspension

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

It’s nice to know there are people who will elucidate what’s really happening with the Japan Basketball Association-led merger talks between the bj-league, NBL and NBDL.

Don Beck, the Toyota Alvark head coach, sees right through this mirage.

“What is going on with Japanese basketball is complete insanity,” Beck told Hoop Scoop on Friday. “There are too many people with their own agendas. There is absolutely no responsible planning going on for the future growth of the sport.

“This recent committee of bj-league and NBL officials is a farce and the NBL and JBA are only trying to placate FIBA so they don’t kick them out. It is very sad.”

Beck makes an important point: It’s outrageous that voices of reason aren’t driving this discussion in the right direction.

But let’s be clear about one thing: A merger between the bj-league and the National Basketball League (and maybe the National Basketball Development League), the JBL and JBL2 successors, is a necessary step to legitimize the pro game in Japan, as Zeljko Pavlicevic, former bench boss for the Japan national team, the bj-league’s Shimane Susanoo Magic and, most recently, the NBL’s Wakayama Trians, has pointed out to me on several occasions for several years.

Common sense and realistic goals need to be the foundation of the sport’s overhaul here.

But it’s frightening that neither aspect are primary objectives for JBA president Yasuhiko Fukatsu and his inner circle, which now includes a newly appointed board member, bj-league commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi, who is viewed as a maverick but is in the unique position to pontificate about his 22-team league entering its 10th season while NBL and NBDL teams dance around the issue of full-fledged professional status.

For JBA officials to even suggest publicly that a 44-team merger is the latest “plan,” is irresponsible and ignores reality. (Slapstick comedy: Who can forgot the rejected plan in 2011: a 36-team merger/new league?)

For starters, the public won’t embrace such a monstrosity, and the mainstream media will treat it like a running joke — or ignore it completely.

“It’s definitely not realistic,” one basketball insider told Hoop Scoop. “It’s stupid to even consider having a 44-team league. Again, this is all Kawachi flexing his muscles. He’s got the JBA now.”

Can this power struggle accomplish anything?

FIBA, basketball’s world governing body, imposed a late October deadline on the JBA to devise a plan to create one top league in Japan or face sanctions — a suspension, barring JBA national teams from competing in FIBA-sanctioned tournaments, which could put a stranglehold on Japan teams’ development in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

For years, FIBA officials insisted that the JBA needs to change — secretary general Patrick Baumann himself made those demands — and end the mind-numbing impasse between the bj-league, which began play in November 2005 with six teams, including two ex-JBL squads, because the latter was stuck in a time warp, refusing to build a pro league while clinging to the corporate league model.

How will three leagues (or perhaps two if the NBDL vanishes from the picture) make this merger happen?

There are too many variables to work out. And remember this: When the NBA and ABA merger took place in August 1976, only four ABA franchises entered the NBA, which had 18 teams beforehand.

In recent weeks, JBA gasbags have boasted about conducting meetings and attempting to come up with consensus among various teams, but have produced zero evidence or even an outline of targets for making a new league one that has any chance of capturing the public’s attention and becoming relevant as a major national league. None of their statements to the media indicate anyone is a true leader with vision to unite the sport and put the kibosh on years of wasted time and insincerity.

In short, they haven’t presented one iota of evidence that they have a workable plan. And if they had, word would trickle out to the press.

Instead, everyone ought to be shaking their heads — but not be surprised — about all of this.

Instead of a plan, it’s all just a sham.

One Japan hoops insider addressed the underlying problems that are at the root causes of the sport’s longtime identity crisis, which also stand in the way of a sensible merger.

“The company teams don’t have the interest, infrastructure, ability, and the list goes on, to run a professional basketball team,” the pundit wrote in an email to Hoop Scoop on Saturday. “In my opinion they will not join a pro league, as they have publicly stated many times.

“They are an advertising tool and the big wigs enjoy the perks of having a team. All they are doing is coming back full circle to the reason the bj-league was created in the first place. Toyota builds cars. That is very, very different from creating a front office, drafting players, getting in the community, having a dance team, and the hundreds of other things that would go into running a team without the parent company giving you $5 million and saying it’s OK to spend it and not worry about a profit.

“Even if the miracle happened, how would (the 2014-15 bj-league expansion squad) Fukushima (Firebonds) have the budget to compete with Hitachi or Mitsubishi money? Talent will always want to be paid.”

He added: “Which ball are they going to use? How many imports? Which officials? The list is so long I just can’t see how this can be done. … If you went to an 80-game schedule, the level of play is going to be diluted even further. Guys will be hurt more often, taking games off, and less foreign talent is going to want to come to Japan and burn their careers out quick.

“There are examples all over the world of how to get this done. Develop your youth leagues. Develop a passion for the game. Operate a true professional basketball league that is sponsored by businesses and supported by their communities. We talked before about bringing in a strong foreign guy to clean house. All I see are the same tired faces saying enough to keep FIBA off their back for another week.

“I wish I could feel more optimism, but I just don’t see it.”

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So what should be the merger target for JBA officials?

How many teams makes sense?

“Forty-four teams is way too many,” guard Jermaine Dixon, a longtime bj-league star, declared the other day.

And how would a league that large — double the current size of the bj-league — suddenly be able to craft a workable game schedule?

One of the fundamental flaws of Japan men’s basketball (pro and corporate leagues for many decades) is the fact that teams play home games at four, five and six venues a season, with some clubs using more than 10 “home” venues. This guarantees two things: it’s impossible to receive sustained, quality media coverage on a national scale, which is essential to any pro league’s long-term success, and only the most hard-core fans will travel near and far to attend games. This in turn holds the sport back in terms of potential popularity and name recognition, two things that Nippon Professional Baseball and the J. League have going for them.

Takamatsu Five Arrows star Dexter Lyons wonders if the proposed 44-team league would maintain Japan’s scheduling trademark of games on back-to-back days against the same foe, primarily on weekends. He also wrote in an email to Hoop Scoop that travel budgets, which would have to be increased for a much bigger league, would be another big issue.

And where’s the money coming from for this?

“Without having any nationally televised games, it puts many fans at a crossroad of choosing which team they want to go see,” Lyons told Hoop Scoop. “With having major TV deals, it puts fans at ease by watching one team live, then coming home to watch another. To me, the television companies are not smart, whereas I think money is up for grabs with viewers wanting to see basketball on TV.”

For the record, I agree with Pavlicevic that a 24-team league is a sensible target.

But let’s do the math: There are currently 22 bj-league teams, 13 NBL teams and nine NBDL teams, and about half of those teams have been in existence for less than a decade.

How does one measure long-term financial viability for a team when the size and shape of the leagues keep changing?

Which teams will and won’t accept second-tier status if the merger plan gets downsized?

Is there really enough time to make FIBA’s deadline?

I have my doubts.

Pavlicevic, who guided Wakayama to a championship runnerup finish in the NBL’s inaugural 2013-14 season before being shown the door due to the team’s financial problems, believes it’s best to force a merger and phase out certain teams.

“I think it is better for the beginning to accept some good things from both leagues and make a soft merger,” the Croatian coach said, proposing that the two leagues should stage a single Final Four or “big playoffs.”

He said a key is to “give chance and time to resolve many problems. Now with these (35) teams, we have very good teams and good organizations and fans, but we also have weak teams. The next step is to reduce the number of teams …”

Currently, he noted, there are two sets of fan bases, the NBL’s and the bj-league’s.

“Separated,” he said, “that is very bad for basketball, for the national team, for marketing and for big sponsors. … And not having one home court (for each team) is the biggest problem …”

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Since arriving in Japan to join the bj-league’s Rizing Fukuoka during the 2007-08 season, forward Michael Parker has been of the elite all-around players in Japan. He also won four scoring titles in the bj-league before moving on to the Trians. He helped steer Wakayama to the NBL Finals.

Parker has seen the plusses and minuses in both leagues. He welcomes a merger, but not a 44-team entity.

“They should go with 20 teams,” Parker told Hoop Scoop. “But all 20 teams have to apply and show that they are viable for five years. Every other team could be second division and the two worst teams of the big league get moved down and the top two of the lower division get moved up.

“I think it could even work like baseball with the American and National League and have two leagues with basically the same rules under the same umbrella with some limited interleague play and a true championship at the end of the season.

“Something along these lines would be the best because both leagues will have all the say in their respective league, but then still be in direct competition decided by play on the court.”

Here’s how former Osaka Evessa and Gunma Crane Thunders coach Ryan Blackwell views the merger talks: “I think you take the most financially stable teams from both leagues and put them into the top league in Japan (NBL). Then teams that have a really low fan base and money issues, such as Oita (HeatDevils of the bj-league), should be put into a second division (NBL2).

“You could have a 20-22 team league for the top division. I think the idea of Okinawa (Ryukyu Golden Kings) playing Toshiba or Osaka playing Tochigi on a regular basis is intriguing.”

With both the bj-league and the NBL fighting to gain relevance throughout Japan, the lack of major TV contracts and strong marketing strategies to promote the games are colossal problems for both leagues.

However, strength in unity is not just a time-tested wisdom, but a sound business strategy, too. And a merger with a smart strategy for growth would grab people’s attention overseas as well.

Just ask ex-Evessa coach Bill Cartwright.

“If they can merge the two leagues, it could be something special, and also good American players would seek to come there,” said Cartwright, who won five NBA championship rings as a player and assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls.

Rizing coach James Duncan is monitoring the situation with a glass-is-half-full outlook.

“Of course, there will be some bumps in the road and some difficult decisions to be made, but with the right vision there could be some exciting times for Japanese basketball,” Duncan said. “I understand it’s also a business and there are certain requirements that need to be met but ‘compromise’ is a big word when dealing with so many voices. Everyone will not get everything they want, but ultimately, I believe, everyone wants the same thing and that’s for Japanese basketball to be one of the top leagues in the world. We should wear that as a badge of honor. …”

But unless the JBA eradicates its ineptitude, trickery and nasty politics, which stand in the way of a necessary grand plan, Duncan’s hopes — which are shared by so many — will not come to fruition.

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Feedback: Send email to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp