It’s 10:45 on Tuesday morning. Tokyo Apache coach Joe Bryant and his players are busy preparing for another day in the gym. They bring the necessary attire — sneakers, baggy shorts, jerseys — and, of course, their basketballs. They have a special audience, too.
On this day, they will run through light drills with some 70 sixth-graders in Shinonome Elementary School’s gym in Koto Ward.
“Hello, my name is Coach Joe Bryant,” the ex-pro says at the start of the two-hour session in the gym before orderly rows of students and curious adult onlookers.
Each player gives a similar introduction and politely bows.
Then the players and students begin stretching exercises, twirling and twisting their arms in long, purposeful movements. (Running, jumping, dribbling, passing and shooting drills are planned for later).
Yasuhiro Ohba, one of the team’s returning players, eagerly leads one of the five groups through the stretches. Veteran teammate Taketo Aoki assumes the role of gym supervisor, speaking assertively, while Bryant keeps a low profile during the warm-ups.
But Coach B. soon reminds the kids he can take charge, too. “I’ve got a big voice,” he announces, a whistle dangling from his neck. “I can speak loudly, too.”
He laughs. They laugh.
Like the other seven bj-league teams, the Apache understand the need to get out into the community and to interact with students, teachers, parents and everyday citizens. It’s the best approach to build a fan base for the future of the league, which tips off its second season with two games on Saturday.
In that regard, Tuesday’s outing was a win-win situation.
As he watches the students doing their best to mimic the Apache players’ footwork and balance on the crowded hardwood floor, Toshio Tejima, the principal at Shinonome Elementary School, looks pleased.
“It was a very good chance for the children to work,” Tejima was saying through a translator. “Yes, of course, to meet professional players like this here is good inspiration.”
Tejima refers to the players as good role models for the students and says it’s good for them to meet people from other countries, such as the American players on the Apache (Jeremee McGuire, Michael Jackson, John “Helicopter” Humphrey and Nick Billings).
Darin Satoshi Maki, a speedy 177-cm guard who played for the team during its inaugural season, believes bj-league commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi’s grassroots commitment to spreading the word about the second-year league is the right approach.
“The good thing is that we are starting to come out to the younger kids,” says Maki. “We don’t want to start them too late with basketball. During the offseason, we were doing clinics every week, which was something we didn’t do last year. And I think it’s just going to promote the game of basketball in Japan because we want to get the level up and get the bj-league out there as well.
“Doing (events) like this, it can’t do no harm. This can only do good.”
The No. 1 highlight of the Apache’s visit is the 7-on-7 games the students play with pairs of the Tokyo squad’s players just before lunchtime.
For five minutes apiece, 14 students share court time with their heroes — guys named Jumpei Nakama and Kazuya Nobuhira, McGuire and Humphrey, Hideki Katsumata and Kohei Aoki. Even Joe Bryant runs the floor, flings passes to kids or hands the ball to a surprised student, who launches a shot.
In a movie-like scene, one kid swats a shot taken by one of his classmates. Bryant notices this and praises the defender’s effort. “Hey, he played some ‘D’ there,” the coach says.
Bryant flashes a few of his old NBA moves, too, a few give-and-gos with the students, who are thrilled to dribble, shoot and run the floor while being surrounded by these pros. (Several parents stop by to watch the day’s activities in the gym and even join in for the shooting session, prompted by Big Joe to step onto the court.)
When it’s over, players clap, students clap, Coach Bryant claps.
“This is great,” the coach says after the workout. “When I first came in the league, this is what we talked about, being involved with the community, being involved with the high schools, and the elementary schools and the parents and I think that’s very important.”
Happy faces are all you see during the two-plus hours in the gym and during lunch in the Shinonome classrooms, where guys like Billings, all 214 cm of him, looked like 414-cm giants sitting next to the 11- and 12-year-olds in the little classroom desks and munching on bread, salad and soup.
“This is not just about basketball,” Bryant says after lunch. “It’s about us as people, us as human beings. We get a chance to share our culture and kids are the funniest people in the world. Kids have a great sense of humor, and you can learn a lot of Japanese from the children more so than adults.
“You’re sitting, talking about what you’re eating. Also, you can help them with English with simple things like, ‘How are you? My name is . . . Where are you from?’ It’s kind of an English-Japanese class also.”
What did the kids want to talk about? I ask Bryant.
“They want to speak English,” he answers, “so they ask me, ‘What is your name?’ and I will say, ‘My name is Joe’ and ‘What is your name?’ So we have conversations in English very subtle.
“The first thing they asked me is, ‘Do you like the food?’ And I said, ‘This is good.’ ”
Bryant pauses to sign a few autographs. After seeing the big coach’s signature in his notebook, one boy excitedly tells him arigato. The coach responds with a sincere domo.
“The most important thing,” he continues, “(is) to make sure that the kids are having a good time, having fun, enjoying the game and also learning the game. “There’s no law saying you can have a job but you have to be miserable. You can have a job, but you can enjoy your job.
“Their job is to go to school right now. Sports is something that you can enjoy.
“For some of these children (today) was probably the first time they’ve touched a basketball, first time they’ve played basketball for many children. So it’s a good introduction for some, some others are experienced in basketball because maybe they play outside the school.”
After lunch, Milad Abadi and Yuka Ito, both of whom are 12, are among the many pupils who stand patiently in line to get autographs from players and Bryant.
Asked to give his impression of the pre-lunch practice, Abadi responds by saying, “It was really fun.
“They (the players) are really huge,” he adds, citing an observation students talked about all day.
For Abadi, his interaction with the Tokyo Apache also includes a bit of sound advice from Jun Nakanishi, who played for Santa Monica (Calif.) College.
“I asked one of the players, Nakanishi, how he improved his skills,” Abadi reveals. “He said simply when you keep playing you get better. Also, you keep getting leaping ability as you got some (more) height.”
Moments later, a cheerful Ito offers her opinion. “I really had fun to see the players performing on the court,” she decides.
Indeed, soccer’s J. League’s rapid growth can also be attributed to similar efforts.
But this much we know: Tuesday’s gathering at Shinonome Elementary School put positive memories into the minds of the next generation of basketball fans.
And, clearly, Nakanishi and his teammates understand the significance of this.
As a pro, your main job is to play basketball . . . but you’ve got to do something with the community, (too),” Nakanishi concludes.
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