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League blows chance to honor Aoki


It’s absolutely ridiculous that the most popular player in bj-league history is not going to play in the circuit’s 10th and final All-Star Game.

But it’s not surprising. Really, it isn’t.

The bj-league has often failed to do things logically. And it’s often failed to capitalize on using its most valuable players to promote itself in a big, bold way.

That said, Rizing Fukuoka guard Cohey Aoki’s exclusion from Sunday’s All-Star Game in Sendai tops the chart. Call it a cruel joke.

Barring an injury, illness or family tragedy, there’s no legitimate reason for the league legend to be off the court for the last midseason showcase game. (The B. League grabs the spotlight next fall, when the NBL, NBDL and bj-league join forces to play in the 45-team, three-tier upstart circuit.)

Surprisingly, Aoki, who played last weekend against the Kanazawa Samuraiz, wasn’t voted by the fans to start this year’s game. He started each of the last nine All-Star contests (nobody else did that), dating back to the first one in January 2007 in Okinawa.

I think that bj-league commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi needed to designate an extra spot on the Western Conference roster (only 12 spots are there) for Aoki, who wasn’t chosen as an All-Star reserve, either. This was a no-brainer.

Instead, fans won’t see Aoki participating in the game or the 3-Point Shootout.

Bad decision.

Bad leadership.

An 89.1 percent career free-throw shooter entering this season, Aoki remains Mr. Automatic at the charity stripe. He’s converted 58 of 60 (96.7 percent). And he’s averaging a respectable 10.7 points per game, including a season-high total of 21 on Oct. 25 against the Bambitious Nara.

He is adored by basketball fans throughout Japan’s 47 prefectures and remains one of the most recognizable faces in the bj-league, which started with six teams in 2005 and has 24 this season.

He is admired by teammates and respected by foes. His coaches and his opponents’ coaches have spoken glowingly of his commitment to excellence, his hoop smarts, his unselfish play and his love for the game. Despite his diminutive size (167 cm), Aoki has never backed down from challenges on offense or defense.

He’s been an aggressive, clutch shooter. It’s remarkable how many buzzer-beating shots he’s nailed — at the end of quarters, halves and games, as well as shot clocks he’s defied. He’s done it with 3-pointers, jumpers, floaters, layups and bank shots to name a few ways.

He also has — and has had for years — a keen awareness of how he can thrive in this league.

In 2009, then-Sendai 89ers guard Kenichi Takahashi talked about Aoki’s impact on the league. “He has scoring ability and techniques that make up for his (small) size, and he is very experienced,” Takahashi told this newspaper. “He is the same age as me, but I learn a lot from him.”

Bob Pierce, who has coached the Shiga Lakestars, Akita Northern Happinets and Sendai 89ers, summed up Aoki’s legacy this way in a 2011 interview: “Considered too small, yet he came to compete every night. No Japanese player has hit more game winners or big shots than Cohey. Loves to play and it shows every night. Never cheats the fans who come to watch him.”

One of the league’s original Japanese standouts, Aoki thrived playing under American coaches Joe Bryant and Bob Hill on the Tokyo Apache, helping the team earn back-to-back championship runner-up finishes with Kobe’s father at the helm during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons. He also played under Motofumi Aoki for the Apache in between the two foreigners’ stints in charge.

When the team folded in 2011, the Fukuoka native brought his cerebral talents and uncanny instincts to the Osaka Evessa for a season, suiting up for then-coach Ryan Blackwell’s squad. Returning to the capital city for the 2012-13 campaign, Aoki gave the expansion Tokyo Cinq Reves a familiar face and helped them forge an identity; scoring 14.3 points per game was no easy feat. (In eight of the previous 10 seasons, Aoki topped the double-digit mark in scoring, and averaged 9.6 ppg in 2013-14, his first campaign with his hometown Fukuoka club.)

Now 35, and married with a baby daughter, Aoki is one of the league’s elder statesmen. But he remains a player with a flair for the dramatic and a special gift to take over a game at any given time with a key basket or scoring spurt.

That was also the case when Hill relied on Aoki to help carry the team during a difficult stretch of four homes games on four consecutive days, against the Oita HeatDevils and Shimane Susanoo Magic, in January 2011.

What Aoki did in those games (18 points on 8-for-12 shooting; 19 points, including 5-for-5 on 3s; 16 on 6-for-12 from the field; and 14 on 6-for-9 shooting) remains crystal clear in the back of this columnist’s mind. In short, he put on a shooting clinic.

Hill said as much after the fourth contest in the interview room.

“I’ve had the privilege of coaching some awfully great shooters, (future Hall of Famer) Ray Allen and (all-time great) Reggie Miller are two of them,” Hill told reporters, reflecting on his many years as an NBA coach. “I don’t know if they could play four games in a row and shoot as well as Cohey did. Obviously it’s the NBA and it’s the bj-league, but that’s where they play, and Cohey goes 6-for-9 (from the field) today.

“His percentage is just incredible every day, and he plays very, very good team defense, so he, too, has to be given credit.”

Celebrating history is important. Cohey Aoki’s contributions to the bj-league and Japan’s pro basketball history are immense. He earned an opportunity to receive special recognition on Sunday as an All-Star for the 10th time.

Instead, it’s a missed opportunity to close this chapter of Japanese basketball the right way.