Basketball / BJ-League

Former Evessa star Washington claims he is 'blackballed' despite exoneration

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Osaka Evessa and bj-league office claimed that Lynn Washington, one of the league’s original superstars, retired on April 9 after he was exonerated of all charges following his arrest and 18 days in Osaka Prefectural Police custody.

The former Indiana University forward, however, is now telling a different story.

“I have been wrongfully blackballed from Japanese basketball,” Washington told The Japan Times in an exclusive interview this week.

The two-time MVP and three-time title winner was the undisputed leader of the Evessa before his March 13 arrest on suspicion of smuggling about 1 kg of marijuana into Japan. When he was released by the police, neither the Evessa nor the bj-league issued a statement saying they would welcome Washington back into the league.

The 34-year-old Washington was ordered to keep quiet, to say nothing about his “retirement,” this reporter has learned, after the team’s news release was issued. He admitted as much. One source familiar with the situation called it “hush money,” and Washington didn’t speak out about the end of his successful career. Until now.

Despite the fact, he said, that no bj-league team will sign him, “if I did have a contract from a team, I would probably sign.”

Recently, “I turned down two gigs in South America. So, no, 100 percent retired, absolutely not,” he added.

Washington became the first player in bj-league history to reach the 5,000-point milestone, doing so on Oct. 15, 2011, against the Takamatsu Five Arrows, and also earned back-to-back All-Star Game MVP awards the past two seasons. He cherishes those accomplishments, he said, but is miffed about the way he and his family were treated by bj-league personnel.

Lynn’s wife, Dana Washington, was arrested in February and released on May 25 after pleading guilty to drug possession.

Dana Washington’s lawyer, Ichiro Morioka, presented her prescription, issued in California for medical marijuana to treat arthritis, sleep deprivation and migraine headaches, to court officials in Osaka. The 3½-year sentence sought by prosecutors was dropped.

(Washington maintains that he had no knowledge of his wife sending the package to Japan, and that he would have told her not to do so because of Japan’s strict Cannabis Control Law.)

“Even though my wife did what she did, no one cared for my (three) children who were the most affected by what happened,” Washington said.

Other key officials around the league demonstrated rude, thoughtless behavior after Washington’s arrest, he said.

“For instance, the Shiga GM (Shinsuke Sakai) laughed when I went to jail and said the Evessa are finally finished,” Washington said.

“Who cares if the Evessa are finished or not? Family is at stake, something, I thought all Japanese people cherished. I guess not.”

Another incident involving the Saitama Broncos illustrated the immature way some individuals around the league handled matters after Washington’s arrest.

“In Saitama, one of their team officials paused my picture on television from one of my endorsement commercials and started laughing,” Washington said. “One of my friends on the team cursed him out because of his insensitivity.

“In the last 10 months, I have learned more about Japanese people than I have in the 10 years living in Japan,” he said. “Most Japanese people will disown you if it saves their face. I’m OK with that however.”

What angers Washington, though, is the way the championship-caliber team fell apart after the end of the 2011-12 season. The Evessa were 26-12 at the time of Washington’s arrest, sitting in second place in the Western Conference behind the eventual-champion Ryukyu Golden Kings.

Osaka finished the season with a 35-17 record and remained in second place entering the postseason, giving the Evessa the right to host a second-round series against the Kyoto Hannaryz.

After the team’s playoff exit, then-coach Ryan Blackwell said, “We lost arguably the greatest player in league history and we still had a chance (to make the Final Four).”

Washington said, “I understand the public relations aspect of disassociation, but cruelty reared its head therein. How so? Ryan Blackwell was fired for keeping a team together during troubling times and by being guilty by association. In one word, ‘unreal.’ “

In the Osaka front office’s view, anything but an Evessa championship in May was an acceptable reason to unload Blackwell, one longtime league insider told this newspaper.

“All in all, the league handed down sanctions on anyone associated with what happened to me,” Washington said. “Blackballed, absolutely. . . “

“I’m not bitter at all however. I had a nice career in Japan with a very promising future in America. I will come back to Japan and watch bj-league games this winter. I just hope I can get a front-row seat.”

Washington’s saga is a cautionary tale for anyone who expects the bj-league to offer them a second chance, even if they are declared innocent by the courts. Case in point: On March 30, Washington said in another exclusive interview after his release from police custody that he definitely wanted to return to the Evessa. “Give me a week of training and four games with the Lord with me, and I’m back where I left off,” he said at the time.

That never happened.

“The Lynn Washington situation truly upset me,” a former bj-league player told The Japan Times in a recent interview. “An innocent man being forced to retire, a week after he says to you that he only needs a week to get back in shape, then comes out and retires. Ridiculous.”

The Evessa stumbled out of the gates losing three times in as many days by a combined 60 points in the recent Seiki Cup in Shiga Prefecture. It appears new coach Zoran Kreckovic will have his hands full building a team with only three of 12 players back on the squad from last season. General manager Hirotaro Nomamoto’s ouster last week is the latest sign of a team far removed from its glory years — six Final Fours and seven straight playoff appearances.

For Washington, Nomamoto’s departure was no surprise.

“By the way, Nomamoto being fired is just what happens when you have no knowledge of how a team should be put together,” Washington said.