Enduring the stress of a season with a number of off-court issues and distractions, Tokyo Apache guard Cohey Aoki is playing with mixed emotions.
The 29-year-old, one of only a handful of players still around from last season’s championship runnerup team, admitted during a recent interview that he and his team went through tough times earlier the season.
Starting off, the Apache’s uncertain status for this season occurred because Exstar Entertainment took over the club’s management duties literally only days before the 2009-10 campaign tipped off. What’s more, the team entered the season with a new coach (Motofumi Aoki) and a slew of new players. Simply put, there was no time to develop team unity or establish a natural pecking order.
Aoki, the team’s second leading scorer at 15.6 points per game behind fellow All-Star Julius Ashby’s 20.0), said that Tokyo had to fight to find its brand of ball — its identity — and ways to win earlier the season.
“We didn’t quite know how to play,” Aoki said after an 89-87 loss to the Osaka Evessa at Yoyogi Gymnasium No. 2 on Feb. 23.
Despite a defeat in that game, however, the 167-cm Aoki came out of the locker room with his head up high, because he believes his team is finally headed in the right direction.
After a disastrous 7-17 start this season, the Apache went 4-4 in February.
(Currently, they are tied with the struggling Saitama Broncos for the worst record in the Eastern Conference at 11-21.)
“We’re getting to know what to do more clearly, game in and game out,” Aoki said. “And we’ve started trusting each other. We’re now becoming to be able to play our ball.”
Aoki added that the atmosphere of the team and the relationships on the club are “pretty good.”
“Even when we lose a game by someone’s mistake, we don’t blame him for that,” Aoki said. “But we do talk, watching videos and exchanging words like, ‘I thought this way,’ in order to make sure we’re going to be in the same boat.”
Aoki, you may recall, is one of two players (Jumpei Nakama) who have been on the Apache roster since their inaugural season in 2005-06. He said he understands that it is part of the business for players to transfer around. But at the same time, he fondly recalls the original Tokyo team, which included now-departed players John “Helicopter” Humphrey, Darin Satoshi Maki, Jun Nakanishi and coach Joe “Jellybean” Bryant with nostalgia.
“I kind of miss (the team),” Aoki said. “But I know this is one aspect of this business and there is nothing I can do about.
“There are only Jumpei and me now. Shoji (Nakanishi) has been here since the second season as well. Earlier the season, when I had a worry or something, there weren’t many I can talk to. That was tough.”
Tokyo’s meager fan support this season has been another concern for Aoki. The majority of the team’s home games this season have been held on weekdays, and attendance at the Feb. 22-23 series against Osaka, for instance, was typical of most home games for the squad this season.
In that series, attendance was reported to be 997 and 1,006 spectators, respectively and there were a plethora of empty seats.
(In the past, the team played its home games at Ariake Colosseum (10,000-seat capacity), while the team’s main home now is Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2, which seats around 3,000 people. Other home games this season are in Yokohama, as well as Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Sumida Ward, Tokyo.)
“(When) we were playing with this kind of number of fans at Ariake,” Aoki said, “it was like playing exhibition games.
“But we had a lot more people here (at Yoyogi) last year and the year before,” he continued, reflecting on the few times the Apache played at Yoyogi. “So yeah, it’s a shame.”
Aoki also spoke about the difficulty of physical preparation, as Tokyo is currently the only team that plays mostly weekday home contests and sometimes doesn’t have as much rest time until the next series like other clubs.
“It’s pretty hard to maintain our (physical) condition,” said Aoki, who uses an oxygen capsule to help cope with his fatigue.
“We’ve never experienced this tight schedule before.”
Yet, despite all those negative elements, including the team’s outstanding debt incurred from past seasons, Aoki and his teammates have seen positive developments. And the team has a decent shot at qualifying for postseason play.
(The fourth-place Toyama Grouses are 13-19.)
“We’re lucky enough that we still have the possibility of making the playoffs,” Aoki said. “We’re playing good basketball right now. Our motivation is certainly there now.”