Any new sports league will face bumps on the road to respectability. Players, coaches and front-office types will work incredibly long hours as they strive to give the fans a product they want to care about.
As the bj-league prepares for the start of its fourth season next month, Commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi has plenty of reasons to sit back and smile about what the league has accomplished in such a short span of time. At the top of that list should be this remarkable achievement: The league has doubled its number of teams (from six to 12) since its first game was played in the fall of 2005.
Furthermore, quality players from quality American universities have become fan favorites here.
Ex-Texas Tech University guard Mikey Marshall, for instance, is one of the most gifted basketball players to lace up his sneakers and step onto the court in the bj-league. As a member of the Oita HeatDevils (2006-07) and the 2007-08 Osaka Evessa, who completed their three-peat quest with a victory over the Tokyo Apache in May’s title game, Marshall exhibited a polished all-around game and a knack for making his teammates better.
Marshall will play for Al Qadsia, a first-division team in the Kuwait League this season, he told me. Al Qadsia placed second in the 10-team league last season after a first-place finish in the 2006-07 season.
I’m not the only one who’ll miss watching Marshall’s athleticism and unselfish play next season. In a sense, he reminded me of longtime Yankees star Bernie Williams, who always seemed to look relaxed and confident in the outfield, on the basepaths, in the batter’s box or in the dugout while chatting with is teammates. Marshall possessed similar qualities on the basketball court.
Married with two young children, Marshall, who turns 27 on Dec. 1, looked back on his time in Japan with fondness.
“I think that the fans did many memorable things, but the most important thing was the unconditional support that I’ve received, which was greatly appreciated,” said Marshall, who played under the NCAA’s all-time winningest Division I coach, Bobby Knight, at Texas Tech. “The fans the bj-league has are outstanding from top to bottom.”
Marshall came to Japan with limited professional experience — one year spent in England and the next with the Fresno Heat Wave of the ABA. Two years later, he’s proved that he could be a star in Japan for years to come.
While playing for Oita, he averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. A year later, he contributed 19.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.1 steals and 0.9 blocks a contest for the Evessa.
Asia-basket.com selected Marshall as the 2007-08 bj-league Player of the Year. He was The Japan Times’ 2007-08 Defensive Player of the Year.
“I saw myself growing in a way that made me a more aggressive basketball player, which is a must for an American playing overseas,” Marshall said. “My all-around game is better than two years ago due to being a more aggressive player.”
Quickly changing the subject, I asked Marshall about his thoughts on how a players union could be an important agent of change for the bj-league. It’s a position that has been advocated by Marshall’s ex-Evessa teammate and Stanford University guard Matt Lottich, who is now playing in Germany.
He responded by saying, “Oh most definitely, I feel if this league wants to be compared to the NBA and also to improve this league it will have to (form a players union). Don’t get me wrong, this is a good league. However, if this league is going to be a great league, it’s going to have to make some changes just like any other league.
“A players union will also help with the salary in which the players receive, which is a problem throughout the league. Most of the teams don’t want players to know one another’s salary in order to acquire the next man for just pennies.”
“I realize that it’s business, however, if I’m only getting paid $50,000 to $60,000 with a stat line of 20 ppg, 9 rpg, 5 apg, 2 spg and having to play anywhere from 36 to 40 minutes a game, I shouldn’t be getting paid even close to someone that’s not playing nor putting out the same stats that I may.”
Indeed, salary issues are a touchy subject for the bj-league as it fights to stay afloat financially during its infancy, but Marshall has made a valid point.
In the future, he would like to see the bj-league use only shinkansen and airplanes on road trips.
“Traveling by bus is like making a trip from the U.S. to Japan, very long and draining,” he said.
Marshall isn’t the only player who supports multiyear contracts in the future, but he’s one of the few who have made their views public. (Currently, all players and coaches have one-year deals.)
“A two-year contract does bring more stability to one’s life and eliminates the stress that you have to deal with during the summer months,” Marshall said. “This is also something in which the league could possibly look into.”
The bj-league’s games are played on the synthetic Sport Court surface — a league-wide contract stipulates this fact — instead of traditional wooden courts. Three years of bj-league games have produced unfavorable results: several players have said they don’t like the courts.
“I’m not a fan of anything other than wood,” Marshall said. “At times it was very difficult to stay on your feet, which is a big part of playing basketball. At this time the players have no say on the matter, however if there was a players union something could be done about the court situation.
“The commissioner has done a great job with the league, but if I were in his position I would definitely go to the hard wood or even ask the players what they would prefer.”
In such a short span of time, the Evessa have set the standard by which all future bj-league champions will be judged, and Marshall had a pivotal hand in the most recent championship. He now prepares to help Al Qadsia contend for the title.
“I really feel as though there were three standouts from that team this past season Matt, Jeff (Newton) and myself,” Marshall said. “Lynn (Washington) was also a huge part of this team, however with him being injured it really took a lot away from our team.”
The new-look Evessa will be without anchor Newton, who is now a Ryukyu Golden King.
“I’m not sure if they will be able to do it for a fourth time or not,” said Marshall. “This situation is like the ’90s Chicago Bulls. The ’90s Chicago team tried to fix something that wasn’t broken, but only time will tell and I wish them nothing but the best.”