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Late trainer Tanaka recalled fondly by coaches, players

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Staff Writer

The Gunma Crane Thunders have lost their beloved athletic trainer and translator Takashi “T” Tanaka.

The third-year franchise had played just 136 games in its history before the Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture, native passed away last Thursday. Internal bleeding in his brain triggered his death.

But, by all accounts, Tanaka’s strong work ethic, kindness, sense of humor, ability to relate to Americans and his fierce loyalty to everyone associated with the Eastern Conference team made him an indispensable part of the Crane Thunders.

His death last week at age 34 triggered an outpouring of emotions from bj-league personnel and current and former team members, who have shared those feelings with The Japan Times, mourning the loss of their friend, who leaves behind a widow, Hiroko Sato, and an 8-month-old daughter.

“We were colleagues, but also friends,” former Gunma coach Ryan Blackwell, who led the team for parts of two seasons, said. “He did a lot for me in Gunma and for everybody else. He had a youthful spirit and humor . . . always made everybody laugh. He was just one of those people you always enjoyed being around.”

Ex-Crane Thunders forward Dominique Keller said: “T was the only trainer I ever had come to my place or go to his. Funniest guy I’ve ever had in all my years of basketball. He will truly be missed. Coach Blackwell told me when it happened and I was shocked, and all I could think about was his wife and baby. My prayers go out to them. My friend T will be missed. I’m proud to call him my friend.”

Former Gunma big man Dillion Sneed echoed Keller’s sentiments.

Sneed said, “T was a special person. In my nine years as a pro, I never once hung out with staff at my apartment, but T wasn’t staff to me he was a friend. He would hang out at my place with me and my teammates and we would all kick it and just laugh and joke until like 5 in the morning. He was a special guy and one of the nicest people you could meet. I don’t think there’s a person who could say a single bad thing about T.

“He was officially our trainer, but he did more than just that. He went above and beyond his call of duty and always did it with a smile on his face and a joke that could always lighten the mood and brighten your day. My life’s had its ups and downs the past few years, but when I heard the news of him passing that’s the first time in years that I’ve dropped a tear. He’ll be missed by a lot of people.”

Tanaka’s educational and career path took him to the United States before he began working for the Crane Thunders. He studied at The College at Brockport (State University of New York), then served as an intern at the University of Texas at San Antonio before moving on to the University of Hawaii at Manoa as a grad assistant athletic trainer.

Along the way, Tanaka developed an understanding of American culture and values. This helped him befriend future Crane Thunders players and staff, including current coach Charlie Parker.

Or as former Crane Thunder post player Randall Orr said on Wednesday: “He was always happy and fun to be around. Great at his job. I used to eat at his place a lot. Great cook.”

What kind of food?

“American,” Orr said.

On the morning of Feb. 19, Tanaka was driving in Gunma Prefecture, returning from dropping people off at the airport, according to Parker. Normally, Tanaka traveled to and from work on his trusty bicycle. But that day, he needed a car.

Tanaka began experiencing head pain and pulled to the side of the road, sources said. He called team manager Romiko Kanbe to let her know he wasn’t feeling well. He was found passed out and another driver who passed by saw him in that condition. He was rushed to the hospital, and never woke up. (And the family decided not to keep him on life support.)

“Everyone was crying,” Parker said, describing the team’s reaction. Last Friday, Parker, a man of strong Christian faith, gathered with his players and they said a few prayers for Tanaka.

Several days later, speaking with sadness in his voice, Parker said by telephone from Gunma Prefecture that “I don’t think anybody had any bad words to say about T.”

“He was a tireless worker, a jack of all trades,” Parker remembered. “He ran people to the hospital, he worked massaging (players) until 10 o’clock at night. . . . He just did everything for everybody.”

Last weekend became an organization-wide effort to honor Tanaka. Before both games, the team held a moment of silence for him. On Sunday, his wife and daughter, parents, brother and a few other relatives were at the game.

Inside the team locker room, Tanaka mementos (a T-shirt, tennis shoes, flowers, his picture) were placed on a chair. Coach Parker asked all of his players to touch one of this items before they exited the room for the weekend’s games.

All Gunma players wore a black patch on their jerseys in honor of Tanaka. Parker had a black pin on his suit. A signed poster with heartfelt messages from players and staff was also in display at those games.

Tanaka’s wake was held on Monday; his funeral was on Tuesday, and practice was canceled.

That left little time to prepare for a Thursday-Friday home series against the Saitama Broncos. “But we’ll be ready,” Parker said. We’ve dedicated the rest of the year to him.

“We’ll never forget what he meant to us. We’ll use it as inspiration.”

In addition to the visual symbols cited above, the Crane Thunders have added a new twist to their team huddle chant: “Hard work together, team defense.” The chant now ends this way: “T!”

“It’s therapeutic,” said Parker. “We’ll always say his name with enthusiasm.”

The eighth-place Crane Thunders currently occupy the East’s final playoff spot in the expanded postseason format this season. Parker’s mission is to lead the team to the postseason in honor of Tanaka.

“T always said he wanted to be a part of a team that made it to the playoffs. He kept repeating that,” the coach recalled.

Current Iwate Big Bulls trainer Tsuyoshi Nishimura, who previously held the same post for the Osaka Evessa, expressed with deep conviction that Tanaka’s commitment to his craft was vital for the team and the bj-league.

“Even though our teams are different, we think we are working together in official games to ensure player’ safety,” Nishimura commented. “For instance, when the opponent’s player gets hurt, if the trainer of the opponent needs something special, the trainer of the home team’s gotta help. That’s how we are working as trainers in the league.

“Like Mr. Tanaka, all trainers, we believe we wanna spread the importance of trainers in Japan; it’s also getting better, but not good enough (yet). . . . We gotta take over his heart and keep working hard. Also, I can’t find any words (to say) to his family. I’m really sorry, especially for his little baby. But like Mr. Tanaka, a lot of people love his family. We wanna support them as much as possible.”

League accolade: Aomori forward Gordon Klaiber, who joined the team six games ago, has made a solid impact since returning to the bj-league.

The Fairleigh Dickinson (New Jersey) University product had 22 points in 26 electrifying minutes on Saturday against Fukushima, burying 4 of 8 3s and grabbing five rebounds. In the series finale, Klaiber added 21 points in 27 minutes, with eight rebounds, three steals, two assists and two blocks. Over the two-game series, he converted 12 of 14 free-throw attempts as the Wat’s (19-17) recorded a series sweep.

Klaiber is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, it was announced on Wednesday.

Upcoming games: The aforementioned Gunma-Saitama series was to begin on Thursday. The rest of the week’s action is slated for Saturday and Sunday. Those scheduled encounters are Aomori vs. Iwate, Sendai vs. Tokyo, Fukushima vs. Yokohama, Toyama vs. Niigata, Shinshu vs. Akita, Hamamatsu vs. Osaka, Shiga vs. Kyoto, Takamatsu vs. Ryukyu, Fukuoka vs. Nara and Oita vs. Shimane.

Feedback: Got a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp