As expected, Sendai 89ers players, coaches and team staff left Sendai early Friday afternoon for a road trip to face the host and Eastern Conference rival Niigata Albirex BB.
The games were called off, however, along with the rest of the bj-league’s six other series this weekend, in the aftermath of Friday’s devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sendai that struck at 2:46 p.m. J. League matches, Nippon Professional Baseball exhibition games and other sporting events, including the Nagoya Women’s International Marathon, were also canceled this weekend.
Reached via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, 89ers players and staff described what they experienced Friday and a day later, as well as emerging details about the rough road ahead as recovery efforts begin.
All-Star forward Mike Bell, fellow foreigners Mac Hopson, Terrence Woodyard, Chris Holm and Lee Hyecheon, as well as Takuya Komoda and Soushi Yasuda and a team staff member didn’t leave Niigata Prefecture on Saturday.
Instead, “Niigata team staff reached out and gave us a place to stay. We talked to and thanked the (Albirex) coaches,” Bell wrote in an e-mail Saturday afternoon.
There is speculation, Bell said, that some people believe the 89ers (24-12, second-best record in the seven-team Eastern Conference) may be unable to finish the 2010-11 season due to financial problems that may be compounded by local sponsors’ troubles caused by the earthquake.
Despite those concerns, the 89ers have the appropriate focus.
“Coach did say that we are not thinking about basketball right now,” Bell said, relying longtime bench boss Honoo Hamaguchi’s message. “This is a tragic situation and the first thing we need to worry about and think about is everybody’s well being. With that said, we have no idea how long we will be in Niigata.”
Holm maintained a similar mind-set. “Yeah, we are still out here (in Niigata), but we are fine,” the elite rebounder and polished low-post scorer added. “The guys with family in Sendai went back and hopefully everything is going to be all right and everyone will be safe.”
According to a source with many contacts on the team, the 89ers and team staff that left Niigata Prefecture headed east at around 12:40 p.m. Saturday to travel back to Miyagi Prefecture.
But Friday afternoon’s natural disasters will remained etched in the minds of the team’s players and staff forever.
“We were just leaving Sendai to go to Niigata,” Bell recalled. “After about 10 minutes, we stopped somewhere to eat and that’s where we were when the earthquake hit. Half of the team was in the restaurant eating and some of us were on the bus. I was on the bus as well.
“We all experienced four earthquakes the day before and it felt like one of those at first, but then the intensity kept getting stronger and stronger. I was reading at the time, but it felt like the bus was going to tip over, so I got off the bus with my coach (Hamaguchi) and trainer (Yuichi Kitagawa) and just watched everything that was going on in disbelief.”
Holm added a few insights about the traumatic experience, too.
“Hey, everyone,” he wrote on Facebook. “Just wanted to let everyone know I’m OK. Luckily we were on the bus and had left out of the city where it hit. Definitely a crazy day, but feel very fortunate my teammates and their families and I are safe. . .”
Kitagawa, the trainer, also passed along a few details in a Facebook post.
“Thank you, everyone, for your thoughts and prayers,” he wrote Saturday morning. “I, my wife, Yuko, and daughter, Utako, and all our team members (and) office members are all safe now, but Yuko and Utako are staying in an emergency evacuation area over night without electricity (in Sendai).”
Bell, who played college ball at Florida Atlantic and was one of the bj-league’s top five scorers and rebounders last season while suiting up for the Oita HeatDevils, acknowledged Friday’s road trip was hardly ordinary, stating that the typical four-hour trip took 11 1/2 hours.
After the initial earthquake, “We got back on the highway and had seen many aftereffects of the quake, including cracks on the highway forcing us to slow down and go over them very slow as if they were speed bumps. We also saw many people standing out of cracked houses and many other things.”
The 89ers spent the night in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, experiencing firsthand horror of the numerous aftershocks.
Team members hope to reach the city of Sendai as quickly as possible “because many players and staff left families behind,” Bell said.
Before finding out if he and several other 89ers would remain in Niigata for an unknown period of time, Bell admitted, too, that he was worried he wouldn’t have a place to return to. Or as he put it: “Every report about our houses has been thumbs down. I will not be surprised when I get home and see my apartment completely destroyed.”
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