Men’s pro basketball has thrived in Tohoku during the slow, difficult recovery from the March 11 disasters.
Five years later, the sport has established a strong foothold and a tradition, laying the foundation for the future.
A quick glance at the bj-league’s Eastern Conference standings will provide a glimpse of that fact, even if it only takes into account two-thirds of the current season.
Nevertheless, here’s Exhibit A: Four of the top six teams in the 12-team East are based in Tohoku.
And the fifth Tohoku team, the Aomori Wat’s (17-23), a third-year club, also have a shot at qualifying for the playoffs. (Eight teams from the East and eight more from the West will advance to postseason play.)
In addition to the bj-league’s five Tohoku teams, the NBDL has given fans in Yamagata Prefecture another outlet for recreation: watching the Passlab Yamagata Wyverns, who entered the weekend with a 21-11 record.
The Akita Northern Happinets (26-12 through last weekend) were a first-year franchise, one already with a rabid fan base, when the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated the region. Since then, the Northern Happinets have become one of the best-kept secrets in Japanese pro sports.
After Bob Pierce and Kazuo Nakamura coached the team, hometown hero Makoto Hasegawa, who starred at Noshiro Technical High School, where Yuta Tabuse (Japan’s only NBA player) later attended, stepped in as the franchise’s third coach. He took the Happinets to the championship game last May — like Nakamura did the previous spring — and lost to the Hamamatsu Higashikawa Phoenix.
The stakes are high in Akita.
The bar has been set to achieve excellence.
The same is true for the 89ers (27-13), a perennial playoff participant over the years.
And the Fukushima Firebonds (24-14), who are in their second season, feature the league’s record-breaking single-game scorer in Le’Bryan Nash, who dropped 54 points on the Shinshu Brave Warriors on Feb. 28, and spitfire guard Masaya Karimata, who brings excitement to the court every game.
The Iwate Big Bulls (21-17) reached their first Final Four last spring. They’ve also made winning their trademark. Much credit goes to former bench boss Dai Oketani for engineering the team’s rise, with a 115-41 record over the previous three seasons.
But, of course, this isn’t just about having a team and having games in the northern region of Honshu island.
Connect the dots. Fans. Local sponsors. Local media. Those groups have created a sense of community. Tickets are a hot commodity when the Tohoku teams square off. And a strong bond has spread throughout the region’s six prefectures (Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwate, Aomori, Akita and Yamagata) as fans have embraced the rivalries — and the fun of seeing new traditions — sprout up in front of their eyes, with local players (including Aomori’s Makoto Sawaguchi, who went from high school to the pros in 2010, when he joined the Happinets) starring and competing against a slew of foreign pros, especially former NCAA Division I guys from the United States.
Former Iwate and Osaka Evessa front office executive Motofumi Iguchi has a unique perspective about the impact of Tohoku basketball on the national hoop landscape. He said bj-league teams have helped create the blueprint for how to run successful franchises in Japan.
“Sendai did great job to develop the team and team company,” Iguchi told Hoop Scoop on Friday night, crediting 89ers president Teruhisa Nakamura for putting the plan in place.
“Akita learned many great things from Sendai,” he added. “Sendai was very welcome to teach and give many good things about sports business and what’s success and what’s false.”
As time marched on, this valuable advice and guidance was shared with the Big Bulls, Wat’s and Firebonds, too, Iguchi pointed out.
“We had a Tohoku meeting every month to exchange each other’s business information and (other ideas),” he said.
Teruhisa Nakamura’s influence spread to the Western Conference, too. For instance, one of his long-time staff members, Shinji Kato, who worked for the club from 2005-11, became president of the Bambitious Nara, who joined the league in 2013.
When you look at the decade-plus impact made by the 89ers and the other teams that have followed in Tohoku, quality is a characteristic that immediately comes to mind.
Under original Sendai coach Honoo Hamaguchi, the team reached the playoffs in five straight seasons — the 89ers had to suspend operations after the March 11 disasters, so that season always has an asterisk on it — and he brought those same expectations (and results) to the Kyoto Hannaryz.
“(The) coaches were always great,” Iguchi told me. “Coach Hamaguchi did a great job to develop a great fundamental team. And Coach Nakamura made a fun, crazy (team), and Coach Dai showed Iwate can challenge for the Final Four.”
He pinpointed Akita native and underrated guard Kenichi Takahashi, who has been a consistent performer for the 89ers, Big Bulls, Wat’s and, now, Happinets as his choice for the “No. 1 Tohoku Japanese player.”
He recognized the dynamic all-around skills of Bobby St. Preux, 2009 All-Star Game MVP, who suited up for the 89ers (and later the Osaka Evessa), calling him a “great franchise player.”
Long-time 89ers point guard Takehiko Shimura, a Sendai native, also has given the region a model of consistency, a selfless player who has been a great role model off the court with post-March 11 fundraising and community-based projects for years, too. For the 160-cm Shimura, this season’s big numbers (179 assists and 30 turnovers) are astounding, but are typical for him. He’s a special player and a basketball treasure for Miyagi Prefecture and Tohoku.
This season, though, marks the end of an era. The bj-league’s teams will be assigned to the first, second and third divisions in the new 45-team circuit known as the B. League, which begins play in September. And the reality of the new league’s scheduling will drive a stake into the heart of these rivalries.
Akita and Sendai move into the 18-team first division, while Aomori, Iwate and Fukushima join the 18-team second division, taking away numerous regular-season showdowns the teams and locals have come to appreciate. (Relegation and promotion will be a part of the new league.)
Iguchi called this a “bad thing,” noting that the B. League will “lose many Tohoku Derby matches against Sendai or Akita.”
“For Tohoku people, challenging Sendai is very important for them,” he commented. “It’s not only sports because Sendai is the biggest city in Tohoku.
“Will they pay attention (against current NBL clubs) Toshiba or Hitachi? No. They like to have a game against the city next to you.”
Iguchi credited Pierce, who took over as Sendai coach for the 2011-12 season after Hamaguchi’s departure and led the 89ers to the playoffs, as helping popularize the league in northern Honshu. “He introduced many great American players (including guys like Sek Henry, Will Graves, Johnny Dukes, Sam Willard, etc.) to Tohoku people, too,” Iguchi declared. Assessing the overall landscape of Japan pro hoops moving forward, Iguchi believes that Sendai’s Nakamura and Akita team president Yuki Mizuno will have key roles in Tohoku and beyond.
Iguchi said that once the B. League starts many NBL teams will “have to pay more attention to how they run their franchises.”
Will Tohoku’s strong regional rivalries survive these big changes?
Only time will tell.