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Nonstop growth, inept management were constant problems throughout the bj-league’s 11 seasons

by

Second in a two-part series

Throughout its rocky 11-season history, mismanagement was often at the heart of the bj-league’s biggest problems.

The league grew so fast (from six to eight to 10 to 12 to 13 to . . . eventually 24 teams this past season (two clubs also folded and another defected), and the league and teams’ office staff turnover was so high, people never really had a chance to grow into their jobs. Or get better at them.

There was zero stability across the board.

Bottom line: It affected the product.

As Basketball Navi scribe Kei Sadayama told Hoop Scoop in February 2011, “Expansion and growing the bj-league are not good moves. . . . If the number of teams increases, unqualified players will also increase.”

Unfortunately, expansion never stopped. The league never had a chance to grow and mature in a common-sense manner.

By the 11th season, the talent was spread too thin across too many teams with too many game officials not experienced or qualified enough to be working at the pro level.

What’s more, the decrease in import players on each team (from five to four to three) created an uneven flow to many games, with the problem compounded by alternating-quarter import quota rules (which changed several times over the years) that hampered the ability of coaches to do their jobs in a sensible, legitimate way.

In May 2009, Tokyo Apache forward Dameion Baker suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the championship game against the Ryukyu Golden Kings at Ariake Colosseum. (What’s more, there wasn’t an ambulance at the arena on stand-by; someone could’ve had a life-threatening injury.)

Baker’s severe injury required surgery and physical rehabilitation. But it turned out that then-team CEO Manabu Saiki’s staff didn’t have medical insurance for Baker. And in a long, drawn-out dispute with Baker, including four face-to-face meetings with team officials, Saiki refused to pay for all of Baker’s medical bills.

Baker returned to his home in North Carolina to complete physical rehab, so he could start working again in the family construction business. Baker said the Apache offered to pay for half of his rehab costs in North Carolina. That promise was broken. His bill totaled $4,500, he told The Japan Times, and received $245 from Tokyo.

If the league had a strong administration, it might have been able to force the Apache to meet its obligations. And if a players’ union had existed and addressed the issue in an aggressive manner to FIBA, basketball’s world governing body, maybe conditions could’ve improved for players who were exploited by some teams.

Another shocking saga: The Osaka Evessa and league office, spearheaded by commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi, forced iconic superstar forward Lynn Washington to retire in April 2012 after he was exonerated of drug charges — suspicion of smuggling about 1 kg of marijuana into Japan — related to his detention by Osaka Prefectural Police that March.

Washington’s wife, Dana, pleaded guilty to drug possession. The package, discovered by customs officials, was addressed to her, according to police reports. Her lawyer showed her California medical marijuana prescription to court officials, this newspaper reported, and she was released from police custody in May 2012 after being detained in late February.

Lynn Washington, a two-time regular-season MVP and two-time All-Star Game MVP, served 18 days in police custody. He never failed a drug test. The Japanese court system found him not guilty, and yet he was denied the right to continue his career here. He brought winning ways to the Niigata Albirex BB in the old JBL, starting in 2000, and helped make the three-time champion Evessa the bj-league’s original dynasty. He was a beloved player throughout the league, too.

Despite due process, the bj-league ignored common decency and refused to give Washington, then 34, a second chance to remain with his team. (Many of the team’s fans refused to forgive the Evessa for this and/or abandoned support of them, basketball insiders told Hoop Scoop.)

Lacking gravitas and necessary experience, the league’s media relations department allowed teams to bully the media. For instance, the Shiga Lakestars did so to Basketball Navi during the 2010-11 season after team CEO/GM Shinsuke Sakai didn’t like an article that contained post-game quotes from Lakestars guard Takamichi Fujiwara that were critical of officiating from a Jan. 15, 2011, contest.

Fujiwara was handed a one-game suspension by the league, and Sakai mulled the possibility of banning Basketball Navi, which provided comprehensive coverage of the entire league, from having access to his team.

Moreover, the Kyoto Hannaryz issued a threat via a league official at halftime of a game to The Japan Times (when this reporter was on deadline in Tokyo, working) during the 2009-10 season, claiming comments made by fired head coach David Benoit after his dismissal were all lies. Actually, this writer accurately reported what Benoit said during a wide-ranging phone conversation. The Hannaryz’s threat to “not allow” coverage of their team failed to come to fruition.

Then, in October 2013, the bj-league issued an unprecedented league-wide ban on The Japan Times that stemmed from my reporting that an informed source said the Kyoto Hannaryz were planning to defect to the rival NBL (the JBL’s successor) for the 2014-15 season. All media access was declared off limits by the league office, but this newspaper’s year-round, in-depth coverage continued.

The ban was lifted at the end of March 2015, after FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann and others were pressured to push the league to lift the ban, and this was at a time when FIBA had handed the Japan Basketball Association a global ban for failing to merge the NBL and bj-league before an October 2014 deadline. (The merger eventually happened, and that’s why the bj-league and NBL joined forces with the NBDL to create the new B. League for the upcoming season.)

Despite the media ban, numerous sources refusing to follow instructions and continued to communicate with The Japan Times. It later became crystal clear, through numerous talks with several league insiders, that sources who weighed in on the original source’s comments would be blackballed by the Hannaryz front office and/or have trouble finding work in Japan pro basketball.

Former Ole Miss scoring sensation John Neumann, a former ABA and NBA player who had coached in Germany, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, China, Saudi Arabia, among other places, before arriving in Japan in 2007 to lead the expansion Rizing Fukuoka, expressed frustration about the team’s ineffective front office. During the Rizing’s inaugural season, he said that he’d “never worked for a basketball team where front office (personnel) didn’t know anything about basketball.”

Several teams had key decisions makers without the necessary skills to properly oversee basketball operations.

And it wasn’t always about keeping costs down. Many teams simply didn’t demonstrate that they valued proven leaders who could establish the foundation for future success.

As a fledgling circuit, the bj-league went out of its way to limit its exposure to the outside world. Its website had limited English information for years (then dropped its link to The Japan Times’ basketball page), and that info was reduced to virtually nothing over its final few seasons.

Prospective coaches and players and agents who wanted to do business with the league routinely inquired about how to reach out to key contacts at the league office and its teams via email, sending those questions repeatedly in emails to Hoop Scoop. Subsequent correspondence to this columnist often showed that coaches, players, agents and others usually didn’t even receive responses from the league office and teams.

Translation: They were wasting their time trying to land jobs in the league.

Longtime coach Brad Greenberg, the former Philadelphia 76ers general manager who drafted Allen Iverson No. 1 in the 1996 NBA Draft, held talks with the Lakestars’ Sakai about filling the team’s coaching vacancy in May 2011. He also inquired about several other coaching posts in the league, according to league sources.

In 2012, accomplished NBA big man Tree Rollins, who played in the NBA from 1977-95 and began his coaching career in 1993 while still playing for the Orlando Magic, also made several inquiries about bj-league coaching opportunities. Before then, Rollins’ extensive coaching career included work as an assistant for the Magic, Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards as well as time as head man for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. (Not surprisingly, nothing materialized; instead, multiple novices in their 20s rose to top jobs in the bj-league.)

In January 2012, veteran swingman Curtis Terry of the Akita Northern Happinets was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting three cans of chuhai, a Japanese alcoholic beverage, from an Akita convenience store, then fleeing to a local restaurant, where the arrest took place. He was let go by the Northern Happinets, whose management apologized profusely in subsequent media appearances.

More bad publicity for the league arrived in April 2014, when then-Fukuoka team president Go Takenaka was among five individuals arrested by Tokyo Metropolitan Police on suspicion of embezzling ¥380 million in a case involving First-Consul. Takenaka had served as president of First-Consul, a Tokyo-based consulting company, before joining the Rizing in 2012. At the time of the arrest, three current and one former company employee were arrested along with Takenaka.

Speaking to The Japan Times, several years ago, several Saitama Broncos players complained about the team’s questionable policies, including, they said, handing out cash in envelopes to players one at a time in the gym instead of using bank accounts for salary distribution. (As a result, former Saitama coach David Benoit, for instance, owed back taxes after his tenure with the team, Hoop Scoop learned.)

The Oita HeatDevils’ financial woes were well publicized throughout the league’s history. The team’s poor attendance contributed greatly to the team’s problems. Simply put, Oita, one of the league’s original six teams, was a bad market after the financial crisis of 2008; the sustained fan interest wasn’t there.

And despite multiple bankruptcies and ownership overhauls — with new companies being created and past debts shoved aside, including vendors who were stiffed of what they were owed, sources said — the HeatDevils’ woes never went away. The league office took over the team on multiple occasions, “saving” it from collapse before another crisis emerged.

During one “Save The HeatDevils” campaign after the 2010-11 season, the team begged for fan donations, seeking to raise the equivalent of $550,000 at the time, on its official website. Oita players and team staff also visited JR Beppu Station and stood outside a local sporting goods store to request donations.

In late November 2012, American stars Matt Lottich, Taj Finger, Wendell White and Cyrus Tate were told the HeatDevils couldn’t afford to pay their salaries and they would be released without receiving what they were owed. Most of the team’s Japanese players would be brought back at reduced salaries of up to 80 percent, it was reported.

Oita’s financial woes became a full-fledged financial crisis that month when the team revealed it didn’t have ¥7 million for its November payroll for 19 individuals (players and staff). When Lottich and his three foreign teammates were dumped by the HeatDevils, without being paid in full, his wife had just given birth to their third child within the previous month, and his entire family was with him in Oita. It was disgraceful, unethical treatment.

Lottich, now the head coach at NCAA Division I Valparaiso University, spoke out about what happened in an exclusive interview with this newspaper during the height of the crisis.

“To use assets of a former company to form a new team, that’s not right,” Lottich said in December 2012

“If you’re bankrupt, you sell your assets . . . but the bj-league is using them (for a new company),” he added.

Despite all of the above, the bj-league could have had a real chance to thrive if each team had a real home and cultivated its fan base by using one arena.

Instead, the opposite was true. Exhibit A, I wrote in October 2012: According to the league’s official guide book, 141 arenas will be used by the league’s 21 teams this season, including a league-high 12 for Gunma’s 26 home games.

For more than a decade, the bj-league failed to truly promote its product to the masses despite nonstop growth. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of this nation’s residents never learned the names of the players and teams.

Lacking the will or the skill to land a major TV deal across the nation — and get game highlights on major news programs on a regular basis— the bj-league was doomed by its own small-minded tactics and ineptitude.

Good riddance. And the welcome end of an era.

Feedback: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp