It was great to see the NBA back in Japan, after a four-year absence, a couple of weeks ago.
Even though we didn’t get to see two of the top teams in the league, the Seattle SuperSonics and Los Angeles Clippers put on an entertaining pair of games, which both drew crowds of over 19,000 fans.
The first contest was a tight game that went right down to the end, while the finale featured a 50-point performance by Rashard Lewis of the Sonics, which was a treat for all in attendance.
The good news about Saitama Super Arena, which hosted the NBA Games for the first time and was praised by NBA commissioner David Stern, is it’s a nice arena for basketball.
The bad news is, well, it’s in the city of Saitama — more than 30 km from Tokyo.
It was enough of a journey just to get to the site, but with a 7:30 p.m. tipoff, there wasn’t much time for fans or media to linger after the game. It was head for the train station, or spend the night in Saitama.
This scenario really illustrates the need for Tokyo to get a first-class, state-of-the-art indoor arena.
Nearly all of the NBA arenas in North America are located in a downtown area, easily accessible by both car and public transportation.
Japan built all of these stadiums for the 2002 World Cup — many of which sit empty and have no hope of ever turning a profit — yet the nation’s biggest city doesn’t have a serviceable venue for indoor sports.
It is nothing short of a disgrace.
The facilities that played host to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 are so outdated it’s farcical. Yet they are still used for basketball, volleyball and figure skating.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Gym, which hosts a WTA tennis tournament each year, isn’t much better.
It is a sad state of affairs.
With no plans on the drawing board for any new arena in Tokyo, sports fans are in for more long trips, outside the city limits, to see top-notch events.
I’m sure many fans will be asking themselves if it’s worth the trouble.
NBA plans in Japan: Terry Lyons, vice president of international public relations for the league, told me that future plans for NBA games in Japan are still undecided.
“We will sit down and take a look at how our events in Asia, Europe and Central America went this year, then take it from there,” said Lyons. “That’s our normal course of action. We don’t work as far in advance as you might think. There is no 10-year plan.”
With Japan hosting the World Championships in 2006, and Saitama Super Arena serving as the main venue, my feeling is that the NBA will be back again soon and raising basketball’s profile here, prior to that marquee event.
Tabuse to Clippers?: Guard Yuta Tabuse, star of Japan’s national team and one of the final cuts by the Denver Nuggets in training camp last month, signed a deal with the Long Beach Jam of the minor league American Basketball Association last week, in what could be a stepping stone to becoming the first Japanese player in the NBA.
Tabuse, who, by all accounts, had a fine preseason with the Nuggets, needs a bit more seasoning before making the big jump, but is close.
Nuggets GM Kiki Vande-weghe said, after watching the former Toyota Alvark star in action: “I like the way Yuta plays.”
While many players who miss out on making NBA teams play in Europe for a few seasons to get more experience, Tabuse will be running the court just down the freeway from the Staples Center, which both the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers call home.
The Lakers’ backcourt is set for this season, but after seeing the Clippers play in Saitama, it is clear they could use some help.
Don’t be surprised if Tabuse is signed to a 10-day contract by the Clippers — which NBA teams can offer beginning in February each season — if he continues to progress in Long Beach.
A Clippers’ executive told me during the team’s visit: “We talked about (the possibility of signing) Tabuse this summer, so we know who he is.”
Now they know where he is, too.
Tabuse will benefit from playing for coach Paul Westhead in Long Beach.
Westhead, who led the Lakers to the NBA title during the 1979-80 season — when Magic Johnson was a rookie — favors a manic, up-tempo offense in which his team runs nonstop, basically trying to wear the other team out.
In addition to coaching the Lakers, Westhead has also served as bench boss for the Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, at the collegiate level and worked in the Japan Basketball League as coach of the Panasonic Super Kangaroos.
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