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Veteran Aoki to return next season

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Cohey Aoki contemplated retirement this offseason, but has decided to extend his playing career.

The bj-league’s most decorated All-Star, an eight-time selection in as many midseason showcase games, will play for his hometown Rizing Fukuoka during the 2014-15 season, it was announced on Sunday.

“It is a big challenge for the team as well as for me this year,” Aoki, the only player in league history to appear in all eight All-Star Games, said in a statement.

Longtime league sources, including Aoki’s former teammates, told The Japan Times in recent days that the guard’s competitive fire remains as strong as ever, even though he had talked about possible retirement after the Rizing season ended in May.

He played in 55 games last season, including the playoffs, and averaged 9.5 points. He shot 50.2 percent from 2-point range and 43.0 percent from beyond the arc. He sank 85.8 percent of his free-throw attempts.

The 167-cm Aoki has been an iconic star in the bj-league for years, having played in the fledgling circuit since its inception in 2005.

He appeared in back-to-back title games with the now-defunct Tokyo Apache in 2008 and ’09 at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum while playing under bench boss Joe Bryant, Kobe’s father. He shined during ex-NBA head coach Bob Hill’s stint as the final coach in Apache history in 2010-11, with the longtime coach mentioning Aoki’s shooting skills in the same conversation as Hall of Famer Reggie Miller.

Aoki brought a valuable veteran presence to the Osaka Evessa for the 2011-12 season after the Apache folded, then returned to Japan’s capital city to play for the expansion Tokyo Cinq Reves in the 2012-13 season.

The 33-year-old then joined the Rizing before the 2013-14 season. The team endured an up-and-down campaign — with Mack Tuck, Kimitoshi Sano and James Duncan guiding the squad as sideline supervisors. Duncan turned things around in the season’s second half, leading the 2012-13 title runnerup Rizing to the playoffs.

But in the offseason the squad has revamped its roster with the loss of forward Reggie Warren (to the Kyoto Hannaryz), center Julius Ashby (unsigned) and guards Akitomo Takeno (Akita Northern Happinets) and Jun Nakanishi (Iwate Big Bulls), among others.

Aoki’s return gives the Rizing a familiar — and famous — face to help lure fans to games.

And remember this: Aoki is the most popular player in league history.

He’s been a remarkably consistent free-throw shooter, always around 85 to 90 percent per season.

He’s never been afraid of taking the big shot, never shunned high-pressure situations on the court. With the shot clock or game clock winding down, Aoki’s bj-league coaches — from Bryant to Motofumi Aoki to Bob Hill to Ryan Blackwell to Aoki (a second time) and the aforementioned Rizing trio — always sought out opportunities to get Aoki the ball in crunch time. Call it a ringing endorsement and collective recognition of his overall body of work in the league.