Ex-soccer star turns to wheelchair basketball

by Alastair Himmer


— Former soccer player Kazuyuki Kyoya revealed a glimpse of his professional past when he talked about his experiences with the Japanese wheelchair basketball team at last year’s Sydney Paralympics.

“I didn’t feel particularly excited because we had our first game the next day. We hadn’t gone to Sydney to party,” he said when asked if the Oct. 18 opening ceremony, watched by 120,000 at Stadium Australia, had given him goose bumps.

Kyoya, 29, played in the midfield for JEF United Ichihara in 1993, the inaugural season of the J-League, until he had a car accident Nov. 28 of the same year while driving to a dress rehearsal for his wedding. He was left paralyzed from the chest down.

Told by doctors that he would never walk again, Kyoya, who married his fiancee, Yoko, in the hospital 11 days after the accident, took just three months to get the sport bug again following a chance meeting with Osamu Kotaki, Japan’s wheelchair basketball coach.

“I bumped into him at the Urayasu city office midway through my stay in the hospital and he suggested it to me. If I hadn’t met him, I wouldn’t be playing now,” said Kyoya, who took up wheelchair basketball eight months after returning home.

Kyoya, who plays for the Chiba Hawks, said his two young children were the main reason he took up the sport.

“I didn’t want them to grow up being teased because I’m disabled. I wanted to do something that they could be proud of,” he said.

Japan lost its opening match of the Paralympics 64-36 to host Australia and went on to finish ninth in the 12-team competition, a result Kyoya said showed the team’s relative inexperience and “weakness under pressure.”

“You want to reach the knockout stages at least. But playing in front of 6,000 people, which you never get in Japan, on that stage, I felt like I’d returned,” he said, recalling his former career at JEF United.

Remarkably, Kyoya believes his accident has helped him become more professional in his new sport.

“I was a selfish player and wanted to change that. The accident made me notice all the bad points about myself and made me grow up,” he said, explaining that he has become more “team orientated” playing as a guard for the Hawks and Japan.

“When I first saw wheelchair basketball, I couldn’t believe all the collisions, players getting their fingers trapped in the wheels and the tire burns — now I love all that,” Kyoya said before a practice with the Hawks. Old habits die hard.

Asked about his greatest memory of Sydney, he matter-of-factly said, “The competition.”

“The referees in Japan aren’t very good. Abroad, they see all the banging as part of the game and let us all get stuck in,” he joked. “As long as it’s within the rules, anything goes.”

As it does in the average Hawks practice session. During one drill, Kyoya juggled the basketball on his head before nodding it into the path of a teammate for a routine lay-up.

“I’m still a soccer fan — maybe more so this year with the lottery. I’m grateful to JEF (United) for their continuing support, too,” he said.

Kyoya, who is comfortable being a role model for disabled people, said he still worries about his former team.

“They’ve been stuck in a relegation scrap the past two years and now they’ve sold (Tomoyuki) Sakai and (Satoshi) Yamaguchi. You wonder if a club in their position can afford to do that,” Kyoya said.

Still very much on the ball, perhaps a job for Kyoya in JEF United’s front office is on the horizon.