After a decade in Japan, much of it devoted to spreading his love of basketball to the masses, Isaac Sojourner is without a team for the upcoming season.
Sojourner’s situation highlights one of the primary problems of the bj-league: all players have short-term (maximum one-year) contracts. And this creates unnecessary havoc for each team’s front office, as well as being detrimental to each player’s career on and off the court.
“The league needs to start handing out two- to three-year contacts,” Sojourner told The Japan Times. “That way the player can focus on basketball, not where his next meal is coming from. The fans get to look forward to the future seasons because maybe (a team) just signed their favorite player for three years.
“Things like this must be done to change the sorry landscape that is this sport in this country.”
The veteran forward divided his time between the Takamatsu Five Arrows and the Saitama Broncos in the 2008-09 season. As a productive backup, he helped the former team reach the bj-league championship in its first season in 2006-07. He then rejoined the Broncos (he was the JBL’s MVP in 2003-04 while suiting up for the Saitama club; he had previously been an assistant coach for the squad before playing there) after his Five Arrows contract expired midway through last season.
Sojourner, 34, sustained elbow and wrist injuries at the tail end of last season. Working under the guidance of the Broncos’ team doctor, he underwent physical rehabilitation all summer to prepare for the coming season. But the team never offered him a new contract, he said.
Sojourner said he spoke to the Oita HeatDevils, who are looking to return to respectability after an 8-44 season, but the team’s contractual offer was not the right offer — a substantial pay cut — at this stage of his career.
“I really don’t like the idea of hopping around from team to team,” said Sojourner, who played at Hamamatsu University and now has a Japanese wife and young children. “The league, on the other hand, has given me no options, just like them giving us year-to-year contracts, they have been zero help to me.”
I asked Sojourner if he’s been given doctor’s clearance to play again. He responded by saying, “Yes, I have. Of course, now I’m in the process of building the muscles back, so that has been a chore. There is pain from time to time in my wrist — it has wires in it now to keep the fractured bones in place — but it’s coming along.”
For years, Sojourner has been a regular streetball player at Yoyogi Park, suiting up for the Sunday Crew team on which he’s known by the delightful nickname “Mr. Fury.”
In 2008, he established the non-profit Sojo’s Foundation, including a Web site, to provide grassroots support for the sport and help educate the public about basketball in Japan. (Sojo’s Foundation played an active role in helping the Five Arrows and Broncos bring more fans to games and getting the youth involved in the sport through various clinics and fun activities.)
Unfortunately, this important work met resistance every step of the way, according to Sojourner.
“The teams I have played for and the league itself, in my opinion, go out of their way to stifle many things that people look to as important for the sport,” said Sojourner, who wants to play for another two or three seasons and become a head coach in the future. “But for some reason or another they don’t quite understand the good in it . . . and how it would benefit us all.
“Believe it or not, but Takamatsu didn’t like the fact that I set up a foundation without asking them beforehand. However, if I didn’t just go ahead and make it up, it might not be around today. They wanted to fight with me about it all the time and try to make the work I was doing hard because deep down they knew they were the ones who were supposed to be doing those types of things I was doing.
“But they didn’t want to do those things because those things are a lot of work and they are not interested in that. . . . Nope, they were just interested in selling tickets.”