Saitama Broncos used to challenges

by Kaz Nagatsuka

After the win, Saitama Broncos general manager Toshihiko Narita seemed on the verge of tears, his face red with excitement.

But it should be no surprise. It meant so much more to him and the Broncos, rather than just the team’s first victory in the bj-league.

“We were fortunate to be able to finally show our game,” Narita said after the 70-63 victory over the Niigata Albirex at their home opener at Tokorozawa Municipal Gymnasium on Saturday.

Narita must have had mixed emotions. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been that excited.

Among the six teams in the bj-league, the Broncos are arguably the most storied club, and one that has had its ups and downs through the years.

The Broncos were originally a corporate-league team of Mazda Auto Tokyo in the Japan Basketball League, and were given the name “Broncos” in 1983 — in the second season of the team’s existence — when a former Santa Clara University basketball coach came to Japan to lead the team.

Mazda disbanded the team in 1996 for financial reasons. However, the Broncos continued playing as a municipal team known as the “Tokorozawa Broncos.”

The Tokorozawa Broncos were the first municipal team that was not run by a company. They played in the second division of the JBL, and won the championship in 2003 and 2004. The club withdrew from the JBL at the end of the 2004-05 season to be part of the bj-league — the nation’s first professional basketball league.

The formation of the bj-league has not been embraced by all. In fact, many sportswriters and fans were skeptical about the new circuit.

Narita admits that it hasn’t been an easy path for the team and the club put in a great deal of effort prior to its first home game in the bj-league.

“Until today, we’ve had basketball clinics, visited schools and joined citizens’ festivals since the formation of the team,” said Narita, who played for Mazda in the old days. “And with all the players and staff, we also went out for commercial activities.”

Narita remembers the time when the team had to play in difficult circumstances when it was the Tokorozawa Broncos.

“The players were normal employees working at different places,” he said.

“So we couldn’t even practice enough and sometimes we didn’t have enough players for weekend games because some of them had to work.”

Saturday was an emotional day for Broncos head coach Charles Johnson as well.

Johnson first came to Japan in 1989 as a player for Mazda, and since then he has played in Japan most of his career.

Johnson retired after the 2002-03 season, and was hired as the first head coach of the Broncos in the bj-league.

Asked whether he had been waiting for the day for a long time, “C.J.” replied: “Yes. Very, very long.”

The Broncos finally took a big step on Saturday, but clearly the road ahead will be filled with challenges.

The Saturday game drew only 2,627 fans, which was below the desired number of 3,000 that the bj-league and commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi are striving for.

So the Broncos, representing 7 million people in Saitama Prefecture, will have to work harder to put fans in the stands.

The battle to make the team and league successful will continue throughout the season.