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Prospects look grim for HeatDevils in Oita


Staff Writer

The Oita HeatDevils’ budgetary woes aren’t surprising to longtime observers of the league. But the temerity with which they begged fans for money to help them make ends meet for the 2011-12 season caught people’s attention over the weekend.

And that wasn’t just in Japan. Shortly after an Associated Press story detailing the HeatDevils’ situation was filed from Tokyo, it was posted on the USA Today website with the attention-grabbing headline: “Japan team asks fans for money.”

The team said it needs ¥45 million more by Friday after securing ¥80 million for next season’s budget.

Now the clock ticks. Less than a month after commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi declared that 20 teams will compete in the fall, the league’s foundation has been rocked to the core as two of its original six teams are likely out of the picture for 2011-12. (The Tokyo Apache’s suspended operations announcement was made two weeks ago.)

The HeatDevils have no head coach. They’ve been through three American bench bosses in the past two seasons: Brian Rowsom, who guided the team to a 25-27 record, a 17-win improvement over its 2008-09 campaign; L.J. Hepp, who was made the scapegoat for the team’s loss of three American players after the March 11 earthquake; and fill-in supervisor Tony Hanson to close out last season.

Two of their top Japanese players, guards Kimitake Sato (Niigata Albirex BB) and Hiroki Sato (Chiba Jets), have left the team due to free agency and the expansion draft, respectively. And there are serious doubts that even if the HeatDevils are “saved” the team will have a roster in place to be competitive next season.

Case in point: With local and league assistance, the Takamatsu Five Arrows were rescued from folding or stepping aside for a year due to cash problems.

So what have they done over the past two seasons?

They went 13-39 in 2009-10 and 10-38 last season. Twenty-three wins in 90 games.

Are fans motivated to spend their hard-earned cash to watch a perennial loser?

Can a team’s fan base increase under such pathetic circumstances?

Instead of shoring up teams with meager fan bases and weak finances, the league would be better served strengthening teams that have proven they have the ability to draw respectable crowds and compete consistently for wins, several longtime sources have told The Japan Times in recent days.

“Whenever you always have one franchise struggling or bringing negative news to the league when it comes to financial issues, it tends to taint the whole league and make players and coaches wonder about the stability of the league,” a well-connected hoop observer said, referring to Oita.

“It seems like they have the wrong people trying to run their whole franchise. . . . With that you have non-basketball people trying to make decisions and that is never good. Jerry Buss does not tell the Lakers who to draft, you know?

“So I think for the bj-league they should probably part ways with the Oita team because every year they are in trouble and that makes the league look bad as a whole.”

Another source believes now’s the time to drop the hammer on the HeatDevils.

“The end of Oita?” he asked rhetorically. “(There are) not many players left . . . certainly not ones you can win with. They didn’t draft anyone. It’s over. The league should pull the plug if the team won’t go voluntarily.”

A third basketball insider suggested the HeatDevils should be sold and relocated to another city.

If so, where should they be moved to? Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kobe seem to be better markets.

Around the league: The 2011 edition of the Rising Suns features several well-known current and former bj-league players. The team will play in the Quai 54 international streetball tournament in Paris this weekend.

On the squad are two-time scoring champ John “Helicopter” Humphrey (ex-Apache star), shooting guard and high-profile free agent Masashi Joho (Osaka Evessa, Tokyo Apache, Shiga Lakestars), guard Satoshi Takeda (Evessa, Five Arrows), former Rizing Fukuoka forward Sylvester Morgan and center Hirotaka Sato (Evessa, Lakestars).

Visit risingsuns.jp for up-to-date information, interviews with players and other details. . . .

The Lakestars announced Thursday that guard/forward Mikey Marshall, forward Lamar Rice and power forward Gary Hamilton have become free agents. All three were integral parts of the team’s success last season, when they went 30-20 and reached the second round of the playoffs.

Hamilton led the bj-league in re bounding last season (15.2 per game). Marshall was the team’s leading scorer (18.1 points per game).

Now it’ll be interesting to see how new Shiga coach Alan Westover builds his team for the upcoming season, featuring the aforementioned standouts or several new players.

Waiting game: Former Apache coach Bob Hill, now working as a technical consultant for the Taiwan men’s national team, will monitor the 2011 NBA Draft online on Friday morning from his Taipei apartment, he told The Japan Times.

Hill, ex-coach of the NBA’s New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Indiana Pacers and Seattle SuperSonics prepared former Tokyo forward Jeremy Tyler for the draft, as reported in Sunday’s Hoop Scoop column, and now, like avid fans and coaches around the world, he will eagerly wait to see what happens.