For every expansion team, its inaugural season is a series of highs and lows. There’s the exhaustion and enthusiasm that it takes to build a team from scratch and the growing pains that go with it. And it’s never an easy task.

To complicate matters, the expansion Miyazaki Shining Suns, have been confronted with an issue that many bj-league teams have faced since the March 11 earthquake in Tohoku, tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis: the loss of foreign players who were major contributors. (Most teams generally start three imports.)

Forward/center Brandon Cole is now the lone foreigner on Miyazaki’s roster. Jackie Manuel and Elijah Palmer, key frontcourt players since the season began, decided to leave Japan after what occurred early last month.

Without the duo’s on-court play, the team has continued to struggle. The Shining Suns, 13-35 through April 17 under rookie head coach Koto Toyama, play host to the first-place Ryukyu Golden Kings in their final series of the season this weekend.

“Our team has been extremely focused despite everything that we’ve been through losing two of our key players and leaders,” Cole told The Japan Times. “We realized that once they decided to leave that everyone would have to step up their game a few levels for us to even have a chance to win.

“We knew it was going to be very difficult for our Japanese players to replicate everything that those guys brought to the table on both ends of the floor, but they have honestly been playing their hearts out for us and I’ve gained even more respect for them in the process.”

Cole, who attended Atlantic-10 school Xavier University in Cincinnati, has been one of the bj-league’s best players this season. Making 48 starts to date, he’s averaging 18.8 points (No. 5 in the league) and 11.4 rebounds (fourth-best total). He’s scored in double digits in all but two games, a nine-point output in the season opener and eight on Jan. 30.

The 203-cm post player has faced a greater challenge in the weeks since Palmer and Manuel’s departure. Both men, who averaged a combined 35.9 points, last suited up for Miyazaki on March 6.

“It’s definitely been tougher and more challenging,” Cole admitted. “It’s extremely difficult to simulate the intensity and athleticism of our upcoming opponents every week when we only have one American in practice.

“Coach has been pretty hard on the Japanese players because he knew how challenging that it was going to be with us having only one import player going up against four or five talented import players every game.”

Effort-wise, Cole is correct. Unfortunately for the Shining Suns faithful, that hasn’t translated to a lengthy winning streak in the season’s final stretch. Only the Takamatsu Five Arrows (10-36) have more losses.

Losing can demoralize players, but the tough season hasn’t discouraged Cole from sticking to his role as a natural on-court leader, a job he has embraced.

“I’ve always been comfortable leading the charge on any team that I’ve been on, whether it be by example or vocally,” said Cole, who majored in criminal justice in college. “My leadership responsibility has definitely increased with those guys gone, so now I am being more vocal than I was earlier in the season instead of sharing the leadership roles with those two guys.”

Credit the 27-year-old Cole for his perseverance and his willingness to be a leader on a team struggling to build a winning foundation. In the future, the Shining Suns will benefit from lessons learned this season, and they can thank Cole for helping them take that first important step in their journey as a pro team.

Coach Toyama, an assistant on the 2009-10 champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, has developed a friendly relationship with Cole. The two men, who were born 14 months apart, exchange ideas about what can make the team better.

“Most definitely, I have given him a lot of feedback on certain play calls and gave him my input on what plays I would like to run in certain situations,” Cole said. “But it’s been like that all season. Coach Koto has given me the freedom and responsibility to be the go-to guy from day one and has always been interested in my opinions on what defenses to play and what offensive schemes to run, so that hasn’t really changed.”

Cole has been impressed with the young coach’s fierce determination to build a winner, describing Toyama’s “trademark energy” as a key factor for the team. Though Miyazaki’s 1-9 mark against, in order, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Takamatsu, Osaka and Shiga, since its season resumed on March 19 has frustrated him.

“We’ve had a few games against top teams like Kyoto, Osaka, and Fukuoka that we could’ve won if we would have stayed focused on just a few more possessions,” he said. “Those wins, especially given our team’s current state, would’ve been huge for us to show the league that we can still compete at a high level with the top teams in the league with only one foreigner.”

When the season’s over and Cole finds time for some well-deserved rest, he’ll remember how truly difficult it was. In fact, he already realizes that.

“My toughest year emotionally would probably have to be my rookie season in China (for the Xinjiang Guanghui Flying Tigers),” said Cole, who learned the value of perseverance during a college career that saw him start his final 14 games after coming off the bench in his first 79 for the Musketeers, during which he played behind two-time NBA All-Star David West.

“It was my first-ever pro job, playing for an extremely old-fashioned and militant coach. The differences in all of the basketball concepts that I had learned at Xavier compared to some of the things that my Chinese coach would say and do was astounding to me as a rookie player.

“I was drained emotionally in my time there due to the huge gap in our basketball philosophies and the way he treated his players, as well as the huge cultural differences.

“But physically, this would definitely have to rank as my most difficult,” he continued. “I’ve never played this many games before in any of my other leagues and not to mention the back-to-back game schedule every weekend. Factor that in, with the minutes I have logged and responsibility to produce for this team night in and night out, and I would rank this season as my toughest for sure.”

Throughout the season, Cole has displayed a mental toughness that is commendable. But he admitted he’s had support,. He and his wife Nykeba didn’t feel right about bolting from Japan after the March 11 events.

“She was the main one encouraging me to stay, surprisingly,” Cole said. “We constantly did a lot of research on the situation and after realizing how far we were located from the actual disaster up in the Sendai area, then I felt more comfortable in staying. I definitely didn’t want to leave the team in a position where they had no chance to compete. . . . I definitely didn’t want to leave the team with no Americans at all to go to battle with. Especially since the organization has been so great to me and my family all year, I just couldn’t do it.”

Ultimately, sports isn’t just about wins and losses, but also as a means for communities and families, regions and nations to share a common bond. In this regard, the 2010-11 season has been a success for the Shining Suns.

Listen to Cole’s explanation:

“My best memory with the fans here has got to be when my son (Cameron) was born here on Nov. 28 during our home game against Fukuoka. The gifts and love I received from the fans was amazing; they really showered me and my family with a lot of love. That, and the support I received for my birthday from the fans back in March, was very memorable to me and something that I’ll never forget.”

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