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Staggered start makes it tough getting out of gate


Before the dark days of the winter, the first five weeks of the season have essentially served as a dress rehearsal for the bj-league’s 13 teams.

After all, only six men returned as coaches to the teams they guided in the 2008-09 season. Seven teams hired new floor bosses to start this season, including the expansion Kyoto Hannaryz, who are 3-5 entering the coming weekend.

The incumbents are: Kazuo Nakamura (Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix), Honoo Hamaguchi (Sendai 89ers), Masaya Hirose (Niigata Albirex BB), Dai Oketani (Ryukyu Golden Kings), Bob Pierce (Shiga Lakestars) and Kensaku Tennichi (Osaka Evessa).

There are, of course, a few coaching retreads in the mix.

Takamatsu Five Arrows coach John Neumann guided the Rizing Fukuoka the past two seasons. Now, Tadaharu Ogawa, formerly the Oita HeatDevils coach, is the bench boss for Fukuoka.

The new Tokyo Apache coach, Motofumi Aoki, held the same post with the Five Arrows in the three previous seasons.

David Benoit, the Hannaryz’s coach, directed Saitama in the past two seasons.

Masato Fukushima, who was dismissed early last season after a bad start by the Toyama Grouses, has his hands full in turning the Saitama Broncos (3-7) into a winning program.

New HeatDevils coach Brian Rowsom’s team is 3-5. First-year Toyama coach Charles Johnson’s club is 5-5.

It’s too early to say, though, which teams made the right coaching hires, as there are dozens of games still to be played. In another month, real patterns will have developed about which teams, other than the 7-1 Phoenix, 8-2 89ers and 6-2 Golden Kings appear to be legitimate championship contenders, playoff candidates or last-place material.

Wacky schedule: With an unbalanced schedule this season due to an odd number of teams, the Shiga Lakestars (7-5) have already played 12 games, while the Toyama Grouses have only appeared in six. Five others have played in 10 games, and six have eight games in the books.

This has created a feeling-out process for all teams, one without much rhyme or reason.

It does, however, keep teams focused on their upcoming games, as regular routines are tough to come by this season.

For instance, the Albirex, meet the Phoenix this weekend, but then don’t play again until Dec. 7-8 against the Apache. It’ll be the start of six games in a 14-day stretch (Dec. 12-13 vs. Osaka and Dec. 19-20 at Takamatsu).

The league’s other weekend series are as follows: Osaka vs. Kyoto, Shiga vs. Oita, Sendai vs. Toyama, Saitama vs. Tokyo and Fukuoka vs. Takamatsu, with Ryukyu enjoying a bye week.

At the crossroads: The Albirex (2-6) are in last place in the six-team Eastern Conference and face a major test against the Phoenix this weekend.

Will Hirose’s team take a step toward respectability by earning at least a split against the first-place club or stumble to 2-8 with a long layoff creating a sense of urgency as it looks ahead to a jam-packed December schedule?

Quite clearly, Niigata can’t be satisfied with its first eight games. And unlike the majority of the league’s teams, who faced a chaotic offseason, the Albirex had a relatively pain-free summer.

The team re-signed Japanese mainstays Akitomo Takeno, Makoto Hasegawa, Yuichi Ikeda and Naoto Kosuge, and brought back Americans Antonio Burks, Paul Butorac and Calvin Chitwood, giving it a solid corps to work with.

Adding forward Tyrone Levett — a 21-point scorer in his bj-league debut — to the mix, Hirose’s squad had plenty of depth to start the season.

But the Albirex have failed to close out close games, going 0-4 in contests decided by four points or less.

Sometimes, a team needs to make a coaching change sooner rather than later. This could be one of those times.

(See related column on The Japan Times’ Web site.)

Weekly honor: Rizing Fukuoka forward Michael Parker, who leads the league with 30.8 points per game, is the Circle K Sunkus Player of the Year, the league announced on Tuesday.

Parker had 32 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and three blocked shots in a 78-63 home win over the Lakestars last Thursday. In Friday’s rematch, an 80-76 overtime triumph for the hosts, Parker had a 26-point, 14-rebound, three-assist, two-steal, two-block effort.

My perspective: As the league tries to become relevant to the masses and attempts to build a wider following across the nation, it needs to take bigger steps to represent itself as a professional league. One necessary step: Release the salary figures of its players each season.

This reporter sent an e-mail inquiry to the league office asking the following question: Who are the league’s top-10 highest-paid players?

It’s a reasonable question, interesting facts that fans should also be able to find out about.

Akihiro Ejima, a bj-league spokesman, told Hoop Scoop that this information isn’t released to the public.

Why not?

Major League Baseball, Nippon Professional Baseball, as well as the NFL, NHL and numerous soccer leagues around the world provide this information to the media.

By not doing so, the bj-league presents itself as a closed-door, secret society, one in which owners make deals in smoky, dark rooms. This isn’t the sort of image a professional league needs as it seeks to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

It’s time to change this policy.