Knowing that the Japan Basketball Association (JBA) had no interest in establishing a legitimate professional league several years ago and that he would face fierce resistance from the sport’s old boy network, Toshimitsu Kawachi took a courageous step and formed a rival circuit, which included a pair of JBL teams in Niigata and Saitama.
The bj-league, with plenty of success and failure along the way, became this nation’s first professional league in 2005. The circuit began play with team in six cities and will field 20 teams next season, making it the largest top-division or single-level league in Japanese pro sports.
Some view Kawachi, the bj-league commissioner, as a pariah, a dirty rotten scoundrel or, to put it bluntly, pond scum for even considering the idea of establishing a pro hoop league.
His vision, far from perfect, but bold and admirable has altered the sport’s landscape forever, even if the JBL and bj-league don’t merge in the next few years.
For starters, a rapidly increasing number of communities — not corporations with limited potential for growth for die-hard boosters and new player development — form fan bases in locales all across Japan. In addition, hundreds of clinics a year are conducted by the 16 bj-league teams, with four more clubs set to provide instruction, inspiration and role models for impressionable young minds, starting next season.
(Of course, the JBL’s eight first-division clubs also hold clinics and youth events.)
This is a big deal, but some people chose to focus only on Kawachi’s perceived or real shortcomings.
One longtime basketball observer, who has a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in both leagues, sent me an e-mail as a reaction to a two-part series in The Daily Yomiuri last week that focused on the issue of the two leagues and the sport’s future in Japan. In part, he wrote the following:
“It’s too bad that there’s a division of two leagues like this, but once again it goes back to Kawachi. He created this mess. And by expanding so soon, he’s basically asking for trouble by diluting the talent in the bj-league. There are not enough good Japanese players for the JBL even, and now they’re going to have 20 teams in the bj-league? That’s crazy.
“I just feel bad for Japanese basketball fans. They’re definitely getting shafted by this division/confusion.”
At the same time, those who have the ability to help set a positive tone for the future of the sport are often showing that jealousy, whether intended or not, does become a powerful deterrent to progress.
Take the message — believable or not, depending on your point of view — that Kawachi wants to form a merger with the JBL, for instance.
“Kawachi’s ‘we’re ready to join anytime’ attitude really irks me,” one source said. “Kawachi broke away from the JBL to form the bj-league. Now he wants back in?
“Kawachi can’t have his cake and eat it, too. If he formed the bj-league in order to force a merger with the JBL, then he should’ve said that from the very start.”
Actually, I doubt that would’ve accomplished anything besides this: countless meetings.
One player, who has been in the bj-league since Day One, offered his own analysis of the sport’s current state in an exclusive e-mail interview with The Japan Times. Part of his analysis included a reaction to the aforementioned Daily Yomiuri series and a theory about why Japan’s men’s basketball has had such limited success in terms of media exposure and international competition.
“I think we can all agree on these surface problems with Japanese basketball,” the veteran player told The Japan Times. “Old guys who never touched a basketball before who are secure with their positions do not want to rock the boat.
“I see the real problem is Japanese grassroots basketball, or lack thereof. Mini-basketball (played using much lower baskets) has to go, but do you really want Japan to turn into the AAU basketball machine that USA has now? Ranking a fifth-grader? Treating 15-year-olds like superstars? There is a fine line but I wouldn’t mind seeing something along those lines.
“But going back to the youth, they are the target. All these bj-league teams, though they’ve diluted talent, have helped the sport in Japan. They all do clinics in their respective areas. Now they are getting kids seeing people of their own height, skin color, face that can become pros. Before that was not the case.”
That last point cannot be overstated, but it would have an even greater — and long-lasting impact — if a Japanese standout had become a 10- or 15-year star in the NBA.
(Unfortunately, Yuta Tabuse’s four-game stint with the Phoenix Suns a few years ago didn’t make a dramatic impact on this nation’s hoop scene.)
“I watch Japanese college ball every year and there are some talented, athletic guys with good size that play,” the bj-league player said. “I asked my friend why those guys are not playing pro. He said they only take a few in the JBL and plus, by the time they graduate, they lose the love of the game.
“Their whole basketball lives are based on hours of harsh conditioning, robotic play, and no reality of turning pro after college. They lose the drive. I blame it on the coaching. Japanese coaches at the middle, high school and college (levels) are freakin’ nuts . . .
“We will see a change in the next generation. Former bj-league/JBL players will take over those jobs. They will take over front-office bj-league jobs, people with actual knowledge of the game.”
He added: “In Japan, although hard to believe, basketball is the No. 1 participant sport. But why do we not turn out top players? Opportunity.
“There is no national system to get these kids locked in to basketball. No outdoor courts everywhere like in the (United) States. The JBL and the bj-league are helping but one top pro league would strengthen that.”
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Back to the issue of Kawachi and his tenure as the face of the bj-league, it’s interesting to hear a number of ideas about what people think of the upstart league and how it has altered the sport’s existence in Japan.
To those who say that the talent isn’t there to field this many teams or that people simply shouldn’t care about a new league, or that the so-called two-league fiasco makes it pointless to even casually follow the bj-league, Akita Northern Happinets coach Bob Pierce, formerly the coach of the bj-league’s Shiga Lakestars and JBL’s Hitachi Sunrockers and an ex-national team assistant coach, offers a different viewpoint.
“Not sure the 3,477 fans that saw the Niigata-Ryukyu overtime thriller (last Sunday) felt they were being shafted by any division/confusion,” Pierce said. “In fact, the hotbeds of fan support in the bj-league (Okinawa, Sendai, Akita, Niigata) are all places long ignored by the JBL and would continue to be so.
“Kawachi may have his faults, but he’s still the visionary and hero in all of this. Maybe it could have been done better, but the bottom line is that without Kawachi and the bj-league absolutely nothing would have been done over the last six years. Love him or hate, you have to give him credit for getting things moving in a country were inertia rules.”
The well-traveled coach, who helped conduct hoop camps in China last summer as he has done for many years, dished out a hefty supply of insight about the player makeup in both leagues, too.
“One thing that drives me crazy is this idea that every player in the JBL is better than every player in the bj-league,” Pierce said. “You have five, six really good Japanese players in the JBL, maybe 10, and all the rest are more or less the same. The entire country is filled with players with bj-league level talent. The JBL is filled with players with bj-league level talent. And none of the five, six, maybe 10 really good Japanese players in the JBL are as good as the top imports in either league.
“Personally, I would like to see all those JBL players split up and spread out on about 30 bj-league style teams playing with three imports on the court. That would give each Japanese player plenty of playing time. Almost all Japanese players are guards. You don’t need and can’t play 10 guards. Split them up on lots of teams, and then they all get to play. Let the best rise to the top.
“As it is now, many Japanese players who would be pretty good in the bj-league are sitting on the bench collecting a paycheck in the JBL, because they have 12 Japanese players but only five to six play in the games.”
So, coach, what are your latest thoughts on the merger talk, which many, including myself, view with cynicism?
“Every time this topic comes up, Toshiba and Toyota also come up as teams that won’t join a professional league,” he said. “So it always sounds to me like the idea is dead before it even gets talked about. And while people seem shocked that the bj-league will try to expand to 20 teams, there are more that want to join. So it could go up to 22 or 24 in another year or two (or back down a bit if a few weak teams are mercifully dropped . . .
“Since no bj-league teams (other than Tokyo or maybe Hamamatsu) could ever hope to match the spending of the JBL teams, I don’t see how anyone is going to be joining them. So the real question is: Will any of the JBL teams join the bj-league? If not, merger, new league, it’s finished already.”
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It’s interesting to attempt to summarize someone’s legacy before that person has fulfilled their ultimate goal. In Kawachi’s case, it’s the goal of building a thriving pro league with a much-improved national team that consistently competes in the Olympics.
To pull off what he’s accomplished to date, has taken guts and patience and plenty of finesse and frank talk with various movers and shakers across this nation where the status quo is a powerful force.
“With the factions and old-boy (OB) networks what they are in Japan, Kawachi is one of only two or three people in all of Japan that could have broken away and started a new league,” Pierce said. “The fact is, he is the only one with the vision and courage to actually do it.
“Even if you don’t like the specific way the bj-league has developed, if you were to try to start a new league in Japan from scratch, with no major company backing, you would end up with something very similar to the bj-league.
“People with dreams and visions aren’t always good with specifics or day-to-day management. Kawachi is in that category. Maybe everything he says can’t/won’t happen. If you are expecting that 100 percent of what he says will happen, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you focus on that final vision, you can see that slowly it is becoming reality.”
He added: “I know a couple of individuals in Japan with more power than Kawachi, but they had no vision, and only supported the status quo. A few others had great ideas, but no power or way to make them happen.
“Maybe not now, but 10-20 years from now he might be seen as the most important figure in Japan basketball history. Or maybe not. But I would never bet against him.”
Interesting times, indeed.