Nobody likes to lose back-to-back championship games.
The Tokyo Apache have experienced that painful feeling, dropping Sunday’s bj-league title game to the Ryukyu Golden Kings by seven points after losing by 10 points to the Osaka Evessa last spring.
On Sunday, three Apache players — Nick Davis, Masashi Joho and John “Helicopter” Humphrey — fouled out — and another standout, Dameion Baker, left the game with an injured Achilles tendon.
In addition, Tokyo’s top two Japanese players, Cohey Aoki and Joho, shot a combined 6-for-21 from the field.
Golden Kings shooting guard Shigeyuki Kinjo, who was named the league’s Most Improved Player this season, said strong defense from the get-go was the key to limiting Joho’s effectiveness.
“He is one of the best offensive players (in the bj-league), so I tried to not let him make his first shot so he wouldn’t be able to get on a roll,” Kinjo said, explaining his defensive approach in the final.
In a league where coaches and players all work on maximum contracts of one year, there is much uncertainty already about next season. The Apache are no different than the league’s other 11 teams in that regard.
“As far as next year, I would like to come back,” Tokyo coach Joe Bryant said on Sunday. “We have some unfinished business. I would like to have all the same players back. But I will follow my mind next year.”
The veteran coach also voiced his opinion on what occurred on the court on Sunday. And it was unacceptable to Bryant that Aoki, who has been the league’s most accurate free-throw shooter in three of its four seasons, didn’t earn a visit to the charity stripe at all in his 38 minutes of playing time.
“Cohey doesn’t go to the foul line one time and he attacks the basket,” Bryant said. “I had one referee say to me, ‘Well, we can’t see Cohey among the (big men) whether he is getting fouled or not.”
Bryant told the news conference that referee Takeshi Jitozono, who worked in the final, told him during a recent game that “I’m a referee. I never make mistakes.”
With Jitozono on the court Sunday, Bryant felt his team was treated unfairly.
“(Today) I should have protested the game because when I went out on the court and saw him there I knew we were in trouble,” Bryant said.
In the future, Bryant said, he will be more proactive when it comes to his relationship with the league due to what he perceives as unfair officiating.
“When you have an official who doesn’t like you, I will file an official protest to protect my players,” he stated.
Welcome reception: Ryukyu Golden Kings players, coaches, cheerleaders and team staff were greeted at Naha Airport on Monday by a throng of cheerful supporters.
A day after the Golden Kings won the first major sports title by an Okinawan pro team, they were sporting championship T-shirts and million-dollar smiles at the airport.
On a video posted on the Ryukyu Shimpo Web site, players are seen shaking hands with fans and fans are heard excitedly blurting out “omedeto gozaimasu” (congratulations). It’s a fitting tribute to a team that until last weekend went unnoticed to much of the national media.
Looking ahead: It didn’t take very long for Kensaku Tennichi to reveal his team’s offseason plans. About an hour after his club’s loss to the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix in the third-place game on Sunday, the Osaka Evessa coach said he would like his players to begin individual workouts on Monday.
Indeed, Tennichi, who guided the Evessa to titles in each of the league’s first three seasons, is already looking forward to the 2009-10 campaign.
“We have a lot of work to do to get better, offensively and defensively,” he said.
Noting that the 3-point arc will be wider next season in the bj-league, Tennichi issued a challenge to point guard Jun Nakanishi to improve his outside shooting range.
Tennichi also wants Nakanishi and shooting guard Naoto Nakamura to display the same work ethic as guard Shota Konno, whom he praises for his commitment to running or swimming 2-3 km before practice every day and setting aside time for individual shooting drills after practice.
“We need everybody to do that,” Tennichi added.
Power forward Lynn Washington, a two-time league MVP and the team’s undisputed heart and soul, offered this mind-set about the team’s future, a day after its championship run ended: “Now it’s time to start over and win three more.”
Washington said his future with the Evessa depends in part on contractual negotiations with the team in the offseason.
“Next year, if I come back with Osaka, if I were in charge, the first thing the team needs to do is get a big man,” Washington said. “I’m playing center against guys who are 6-9 (206 cm) and bigger, guys like (Ryukyu’s Jeff) Newton and (Chris) Ayer.”
League support: The Tokyo Apache drew a league-high 90,824 fans for their 28 home games, an average of 3,244 spectators per contest, according to attendance figures released by the league. The Osaka Evessa were No. 2 with 83,121 spectators (2,969 per game).
The Oita HeatDevils drew a league-worst 36,297 fans per game.
Overall, the league averaged 2,195 fans per game for a total of 707,786 for its 322 games.
The league has seen little change in its attendance since the opening season. The 2005-06 average was 2,151 fans per game, followed by 2,563 in 2006-07, 2,395 in 2007-08 and 2,195 this season.
Miscellany: A league source told The Japan Times on Sunday there are six candidates (three foreign, three Japanese) for the Saitama Broncos’ head coaching vacancy. The team plans to hire a new bench boss by the end of the month. . . .
Another source said shooting guard K.J. Matsui, the first Japanese to play Division I men’s basketball in the United States, is expected to sign a deal with the Mitsubishi Diamond Dolphins of the rival JBL.
It’s unknown if Matsui has had contact with any bj-league teams. A 3-point shooting specialist, Matsui wrapped up his senior season at Columbia University in March.
“Everyone says he can play,” the source said, admitting a JBL team would probably offer the Tokyo native more money than a bj-league club at the start of his professional career. (The Diamond Dolphins were 8-27 this season, finishing in last place in the eight-team JBL).
Unresolved issue: On a day when BS-Fuji and GAORA broadcast the bj-league title game live, a simple white banner with black letters (all caps) was on display behind one of the baskets on Sunday. It proclaimed a sentiment held by many basketball fans around the country.
“Save the Devils,” it said.
And it’s a reminder that the cash-strapped Oita club is on the verge of folding, but is working closely with the league to avoid becoming the first franchise in league history to go out of business. Stay tuned.
Young mentor: Ryukyu Golden Kings coach Dai Oketani doesn’t turn 32 until December. But already he’s coached for two teams, and been fired by one (Oita) in his bj-league career.
He’s also blessed with a penchant for learning and avoiding complacency.
“I was fired by Oita. So if I didn’t change, the same result would have followed,” Oketani said after his players performed the traditional victory-tossing “doage” of the title-winning manager on Sunday.
“I appreciated that Okinawa has given me this opportunity, and I wanted to pay back (the team). . . . I also thought that I needed to develop myself as a coach and kept on giving effort throughout the season.”
The Last Word: “When he’s more aggressive, there’s nothing you can do,” Evessa forward Ryan Blackwell, speaking about 236-cm Phoenix center Sun Ming Ming, who had flashes of overpowering play around the hoop this season but clearly can become a stronger inside presence.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
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