Japanese basketball marked an unprecedented dark year in 2015 as its national governing body was suspended by FIBA. It was a tough penalty handed down in November 2014.
But now its leaders are attempting to take advantage of the chance to develop the sport into a major game in Japan, moving toward the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and beyond.
This large-scale project will not proceed without Saburo Kawabuchi, one of Japan’s most powerful sports administrators, who arrived as the savior during Japan hoops’ darkest hour.
FIBA barred the Japan Basketball Association from any international competition and related activities for two reasons. For starters, the JBA had continuously failed to merge the top two men’s leagues, the NBL and bj-league, in the last decade, and lacked the governance to properly run the national and local federations.
Kawabuchi promptly settled those problems as the co-chairman of a FIBA-appointed task force, and the ban was lifted in August. With nimble moves by Kawabuchi and the Japan 2024 Task Force, the men’s and women’s national teams were able to compete in the Asian qualifying for this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics (the women’s squad successfully earned a berth in September, defending its FIBA Asia title). Kawabuchi also succeeded in merging the two leagues to form the B. League, a 45-team, three-division circuit, which tips off next fall.
The 79-year-old Kawabuchi, the founder of soccer’s J. League and later a Japan Football Association president, didn’t necessarily use magic to solve the systemic problems in this nation’s hoop circles. He just told his people what he wanted and the way he wanted things to be, instead of gathering ideas and opinions.
“Because we didn’t have time, I told my people what we were supposed to do, urging them to come to conclusions as quickly as they could,” said Kawabuchi, who now serves as the president of the JBA, in an interview with The Japan Times in the supreme advisor’s room at the JFA House. “It was like, come with us if you want to, if you don’t, so be it. And it was one of the biggest reasons why we had success.”
Some naysayers said that Kawabuchi was just under FIBA’s thumb, accepting all the demands the sport’s global governing body made to the JBA. But he insisted that wasn’t accurate. It was Kawabuchi who came up with the reform proposals and had them approved by FIBA.
“I wasn’t going to defy Japanese ways, listening only to what (FIBA) were saying,” said Kawabuchi, an Osaka Prefecture native. “I’m used to negotiating with foreigners through soccer. So because they were foreigners, because they were FIBA, I wasn’t afraid or anything.
“I don’t think it would be the case for anyone else who didn’t have experience like I have, though. But I didn’t think that FIBA was so big compared with FIFA.”
A bold leader
Kawabuchi is often described as an autocrat for arbitrarily making decisions for the J. League and JFA, but he doesn’t care. He does what he believes is right.
“I’m fine being called that,” Kawabuchi said with a grin. “If I’m called an autocrat, I tell them I am. I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with that? Tell me if I’ve done anything wrong being an autocrat.’ ”
To Kawabuchi, an autocracy is equivalent to strong leadership, and Japanese sports needs more of that. He added that proposals supported by the majority tend to be accepted as the best ideas in Japan, but he strongly disagrees with this viewpoint.
“If you think you’ll have the best idea by gathering more opinions, that’s a big mistake. That’s not my way,” Kawabuchi said. “Regarding (Japan’s basketball reform), if they say that Kawabuchi set the vision by himself, let them say so.”
Kawabuchi is fed up with people in Japan’s basketball circles who can’t do anything but grumble.
As the task force tried to create the new league, which eventually became the B. League, Kawabuchi set up strict qualifications for the teams (they varied depending on the divisions). For the top division, he required clubs to have a 5,000-seat arena for 80 percent of their home games. Both the NBL and bj-league average around 1,500 fans per game, so the 5,000-seat arena requirement stunned the teams, and even the fans. (Kawabuchi set a 3,000-seat requirement for the second division).
Kawabuchi said without a different look that he didn’t talk to anyone when deciding these requirements, but came up with them by himself.
“Who could’ve said 5,000-seat arenas? Who could’ve said that you have to play 80 percent of your home games at one place? I did,” Kawabuchi said, his voice rising a bit. “By having someone that sets the tone (like me), people are given a direction they have to follow. If they had decided this by majority, it would’ve been 3,000 seats.”
Kawabuchi couldn’t tolerate individuals within Japanese basketball who were content with the status quo, with no intention to develop and promote the game.
He said there are so many people like this within prefectural basketball associations, folks who don’t want to change their conventional ways. So even if the JBA is in a reform mode, it still is a daunting task to get local associations on the same page.
“We’ve got to change their mind,” Kawabuchi said. “I think that it will take at least two more years (to bring in proper governance). It won’t be easy. And looking at the basketball of the past, there’s a possibility that some conventional basketball people come out and get in our way.”
Kawabuchi intends to showcase his leadership as the country’s basketball chief. But he said he’s prudent and lets others do things he’s not familiar with.
In September, for example, when the name of the B. League and its logo were revealed, famous entrepreneur Takafumi Horie advised that the circuit should actively utilize information technology in the arenas.
Kawabuchi said people in his generation have almost zero sense in the field, but thinks it’s natural to borrow ideas from someone like Horie. And in that case, he’s not going to interfere.
“If someone tries to do things that I have no idea about, it rather makes me feel pleased,” Kawabuchi, who has taken the JBA chief job for the short term as the current post runs through June, said with a smile. “If things don’t proceed without my instruction, that’s no good.”
But to complete the overhaul of Japanese basketball, piles of work and issues to wrestle with remain for Kawabuchi, the JBA and the B. League.
Quality players needed
It was no easy task for Kawabuchi to get the NBL and bj-league teams together under one umbrella, with 18 clubs making up the first division. But he acknowledges that making it a legitimate professional league won’t be achieved overnight — especially with professional and corporate teams joining forces. The pro teams know better how to draw more attention from fans, but have much less financial backing; the company teams are more of the opposite.
Kawabuchi said that the B. League must be introduced to the public as if it is a completely brand-new circuit. To make a profound impact on this nation, not just basketball fanatics but also casual fans, the league must make a bold jump-start like the J. League did in 1993, when fans swarmed into stadiums.
Yet Kawabuchi doesn’t think that it’s possible to make this big splash with the present crop of players alone. He said that the league needs to bring in some notable names from the NBA the way Japanese soccer clubs signed internationally famous players like Zico, Ramon Diaz and Gary Lineker in the J. League’s early years.
He insists that’s where the company teams like the Toyota Alvark and Mitsubishi Diamond Dolphins may step in because they have better financial status to make moves like that.
“The companies have the money,” said Kawabuchi, who also serves as the chairman of the board of trustees at Tokyo Metropolitan University. “So I’ve advised their executive people to make efforts to sign players like that.”
Coaching must improve
While reflecting on Japan’s overall performance on the global stage for decades, Kawabuchi is concerned that the men’s national hoop squad hasn’t competed in an Olympics since the 1976 Games in Montreal. He thinks that comprehensive changes need to be made (zone defense has been prohibited for the players that are 15 years old or younger, as one of the moves).
One of the major issues is the quality of coaching, and Kawabuchi is worried that the players might not develop as well as they possibly can because of the current coaching system in Japan. He thinks that Japanese basketball has to study the game from outside the country more, gaining expertise and knowledge from basketball-advanced nations.
“One thing that’s made me think that it might take another 100 years for Japanese basketball to become stronger was when I heard that (coaches) said they only have a few players who are taller than 2 meters in Japan and can’t develop centers,” said Kawabuchi, who competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as a forward on the national soccer team. “(They said) that’s why they can’t win and want more naturalized players, things like that.
“But Japan has players that are around 190-cm tall at least. So to me, the problem is that they don’t try to develop players that have inexhaustible stamina and move around better than anybody with height, and who make their 3-point shots (with a success rate of) around 40 percent. Japan’s basketball is asking for the impossible too much.”
Kawabuchi added that Japanese coaches have got to stop whining about what they don’t have and do the best they can given the circumstances.
“They say that they can’t win because they don’t have three players that are 210 cm tall. That’s absurd,” he said. “Countries like the Philippines are winning (the Philippines finished runner-up in the 2013 and 2015 Asia Championship). The coaches are making too many excuses. They don’t have a dream. I want to see a concrete policy, such as ‘Japanese basketball will keep playing in this way.’ ”
At the individual player level, Japan has some promising overseas prospects, including sophomore forward Yuta Watanabe, who’s currently playing for George Washington University. Kawabuchi hopes to see more of these youngsters coming up.
“You’ll make greater growth by going to high schools and colleges in America, where they play at a lot higher level and have great coaching,” Kawabuchi said. “I understand that there are concerns regarding your financial situation and English-speaking ability and so on, but I’d say it’s probably better to always have five to 10 players (overseas) for Japanese basketball’s sake. If that happens, I think Japan will be in a better position.”
Though there’s work to do for Japanese basketball, Kawabuchi thinks that 2016 will be another extremely significant year, and he will keep himself busy, being the man to lead this drastic reform.