The second suspension of the B. League season last week — this time until at least April 1 — due to the COVID-19 pandemic has attracted plenty of attention around the world.
After all, the overwhelming majority of leagues have stopped playing.
Focusing on leagues that had continued playing after the NBA put its season on hold, ESPN.com published a story that’s been widely circulated across social media platforms. Yahoo Sports did, too.
Shiga Lakestars forward Jeff Ayres, a former Arizona State University and NBA player, was featured prominently in the ESPN.com article (“Japanese basketball league delayed again after ‘chaotic’ attempt to restart”). The report referenced Japan Times staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka’s March 16 story: “Virus fears lead to chaotic weekend for B. League clubs.”
“I decided not to practice or play due to concern regarding how the league, and my team specifically, was doing to keep players safe,” Ayres was quoted as saying by ESPN. “I felt we were putting ourselves at risk. It was a reckless environment.”
Ayres’ wife is eight months pregnant and his decision to return to the United States was about prioritizing his family matters, according to ESPN.com.
“Being able to come home was a big deal for me,” Ayres told the website. “What if they declared a state of emergency and closed the borders? I wasn’t going to miss the birth of my child. The league wasn’t doing anything to prevent us from getting sick and had no procedures in place for what would happen if someone contracted the virus. My team in particular was not taking any of the measures that were recommended, such as taking players’ temperatures daily, until it was already too late. The league was pressuring players to play in games due to pressure from sponsors, and my team was being dismissive of our concerns.”
Ayres, who is averaging 17.4 points and 14.3 rebounds in 21 games, voiced real concerns about how he perceives the Lakestars are conducting business during the ongoing global health crisis.
“The team is now saying they will terminate my contract due to breach of contract because I decided to leave,” Ayres said in the article, which was posted online on Sunday. “The league was mostly concerned about sponsorship money and that teams would go bankrupt. They were more worried about their bottom line than the safety of players. Japanese players were also voicing concerns.”
Lakestars teammates Henry Walker and Craig Brackins, both of whom also played in the NBA, have also decided not to compete in recent games due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Basketball commentator Motofumi Iguchi, a former FIBA agent and Lakestars assistant GM, admitted he’s disappointed by the way this was handled by team management.
“It’s just embarrassing and sad as a former (Shiga) member that the Lakestars name is coming up worldwide this way,” Iguchi told this newspaper, echoing comments he also posted on Facebook.
“Plus, they are already talking about breach of contract. Come on. Players are not your enemy.”
Hinting at broader involvement in his homeland in the future in issues related to the B. League, Iguchi also stated this: “Maybe I am supportive to organize a new international players union in this country.”
So has the B. League damaged its reputation?
By attempting to resurrect its season in the mist of a pandemic, has the fourth-year circuit hurt its future prospects for success during this global crisis?
Brad Greenberg, who has coached in several pro leagues, doesn’t believe the 2019-20 B. League season’s machinations will be a big factor in determining how/if foreign players and coaches pursue jobs here.
“It could affect some players’ decisions in the future, but this is such a unique situation it probably won’t,” Greenberg, the head coach of the Israeli League’s Maccabi Ashdod, told The Japan Times.
The former Philadelphia 76ers general manager acknowledged that economic matters are the No. 1 priority for players in the global basketball market.
“Most players regardless of where they are in their careers take jobs that pay the most money,” Greenberg said this week. “Japan has raised its budgets with regards to import players and has become more attractive to players — especially older players in recent years.”
Sadachika Yoshioka, a London-based basketball insider who has followed developments in Japan pro basketball for decades, believes the B. League made major mistakes by relaunching its season earlier this month.
“It all comes down to integrity, governance and crisis management,” Yoshioka told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “As an organization, any actions in the critical times will be remembered for years. Reputation follows you.”
Yoshioka continued, while addressing the Lakestars’ ordeal : “Money can be earned through a variety of sources. It is not the right time to hold an event like that (games) as it exposes risks for fans, players, staff, and their families. It is time to make a sensible decision by stepping up to help address humanitarian needs posed by a global pandemic. If both the organization and players can show commitment to helping hospitals, for example, it will be a great example to the public, contributing to raising awareness of younger people so they can adhere to social distancing . . .”