UTSUNOMIYA, Tochigi Pref. — For 40 minutes of action, all eyes focused on him. Pride, curiosity and excitement characterized the occasion.
And don’t forget this one: historic.
Yuta Tabuse made his highly anticipated return to Japanese basketball on Friday night, playing the starring role in the Link Tochigi Brex’s 82-66 loss to the Toshiba Brave Thunders at Utsunomiya Municipal Gymnasium.
The point guard wore jersey No. 0, but clearly he was the No. 1 man of interest at the arena.
The Yokohama native’s stat line — 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting, four assists, three rebounds, three turnovers and one steal — was ordinary (backcourt mate Takuya Kawamura also played the full 40 minutes and gave the Brex a team-best 16 points), but the pregame attention he received wasn’t.
When the P.A. announcer called out his name, there was not a silent voice in the arena. The fans showered Tabuse with a warm round of applause, reminding him that he remains a fan favorite.
Friday marked the start of a new era for the JBL (one foreigner per team at a time on the court), and the next chapter in Tabuse’s career.
From a personal level, he was pleased with how it began.
“I played well,” he told reporters. “But 40 minutes is not perfect for me.”
OK, it wasn’t ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.
While toiling in the NBA Development League over the past three seasons, Tabuse played a combined 117 games, but made only seven starts.
Tochigi’s season opener was a clear indication that Tabuse won’t be pushing management to give him more playing time. Coach Mitsuhiko Kato’s game plan will begin with Tabuse running the show.
After one game, though, this much is clear: Kato should challenge Tabuse to attack the basket with regularity. He appeared hesitant at times to take over in the season opener.
Tabuse turns 28 on Oct. 5. He is in his prime as a basketball player, having already secured his spot in the history books after leading Noshiro Kogyo High School to three national titles, playing at BYU-Hawaii and then winding up in the NBA.
But his journey as a player is far from finished.
On Friday as he dribbled the ball, moved into position for shots near the baseline, set picks for his teammates and crashed the boards for rebounds, Tabuse participated in a different-style game than the one he was used to playing in the NBADL and in the NBA’s various summer leagues.
Defenses are less mobile in the United States, Tabuse noted.
“It’s interesting to me the fact that the players move so much on defense here,” he said.
The speedy point guard will be a quick learner in his return to the league he left in 2003.
“Adjustments will take time, I think,” Tabuse said at the postgame news conference.
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Tabuse, you may recall, is the only Japanese to play in the NBA, having done so over a stretch of four games in the 2004-05 season for the Phoenix Suns.
That stint, regardless of how short it was, will always make him a basketball icon here.
“He’s a great player,” Toshiba coach Teruaki Tanaka said, summing up the opinion of millions.
For Tabuse, there was never any doubt that his next goal is to return to the NBA. And he recognizes that playing time (and gaudy statistics) are what he needs to get in order to have a legitimate shot to achieve that goal.
Friday’s game won’t be at the top of Tabuse’s highlight sheet.
At times, Tabuse ran the Brex’s offense with super efficiency, finding his teammates at the right time with his patented bounce pass or a chest-high heave. But on too many occasions, the Brex missed the mark (39.6 percent on 2-point attempts).
Tochigi’s rebounding was weak as well, with Toshiba controlling the glass (a 46-30 edge on the boards).
Tabuse demonstrated his knack for the flashy pass on occasions and gave the fans a nice reminder of his outside range (making 1 of 2 3-point shots), as well as his ability to stop and hit a jumper from anywhere on the court with a smooth shooting stroke.
Coach Kato said the Brave Thunders played strong defense against Tabuse, a fact that was obvious from the outset when Toshiba was ultra-motivated to look impressive against Japan’s basketball icon.
Tabuse is a “key to the team’s foundation,” Kato stated.
Yes, indeed. The Brex made the big jump from the JBL’s second division to the top league after last season. One game provided a quick reminder that the club is a work in progress.
When Tabuse and his Brex teammates exited the arena, the focus had already shifted to the second game.
Of course, the attention Tabuse receives and the questions he is faced with over the course of the next 34 games will be a constant.
But there is only one opening game, and now the Brex can deeply exhale and work on contending for a league title rather than thinking about the pressure of making Tabuse’s 2008 debut a success.
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Ninety minutes after the game I spoke with Brex forward Shunsuke Ito about Tabuse’s performance.
Ito talked about the difficulty his team faced in the opener, juggling numerous first-time occurrences — the team’s first game in the JBL, the season debut of Tabuse, the pro coaching debut of Kato, who was a longtime high school coach — and said it was a challenge for his team to keep its emotions in check before the opening tipoff.
“We just had to play it,” Ito said, adding that Tabuse did a “fine job.”
I also conversed with Brex guard and captain Ryuzo Anzai about the impact of Tabuse’s return to Japan.
On a scale of one to 10, Tabuse’s performance on Friday was a six, Anzai said. This evaluation hinted at the standard of excellence that Japanese expect from Tabuse.
“Tomorrow,” Anzai told me, “he will step up, step up,” meaning the first-game jitters would be out of the way.
“I was happy to play with Tabuse,” Anzai concluded, showing respect and admiration for Japan’s basketball pioneer.