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Perpetual problems plague Japan Basketball Association

Proposed new league won't solve core problems

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Intermittent hullabaloo by the Japan Basketball Association’s big wigs about “big plans” for the future of men’s basketball generally produces one thing: a collective yawn by those who analyze such things.

Can you blame them?

The sport here is in a state of perpetual chaos, fueled by dysfunction and petty squabbles among the old-boy network and various factions. Based on this reality, it’s no surprise Japan has failed to quality for the Summer Olympics in men’s basketball since 1976. And failed to develop a system that gives aspiring Japanese pros a realistic shot at reaching the NBA.

Blame the JBA for creating — and enabling — a broken system to operate for decades. Only the names change; the same core problems are in place.

Or as a longtime observer with a pulse on the JBA’s problems, told Hoop Scoop in a December 2011 interview: “The JBA exists so one faction has power over the other, not for the players, fans, or even the corporate sponsors.”

Which is why the announcement earlier this week that the National Basketball League, only in its first season (after being known as the Japan Basketball League previously), will morph into something called the P-League (the “P” reportedly stands for professional; though one well-known JBA skeptic claims that’s a bogus plan, dubbing it a “cloak of invisibility”) for the 2016-17 season, didn’t really answer any big questions. Especially these two:

*How many pro teams should Japan realistically have?

*And what’s the best way forward to require that each team have a mandatory home gym (not four, six or 10)?

The bj-league, the NBL’s rival in name only, currently has 21 teams, with never-ending expansion its modus operandi. The Fukushima Firebonds will be the newest team to join the fray next fall, when the 10th season tips off.

Meanwhile, the NBL, now with 12 teams, including bj-league defector Chiba Jets (two years was enough for them before deciding to jump ship), welcomes the expansion Hiroshima Dragonflies to the mix for the 2014-15 season.

Oh, by the way, there’s also the National Basketball Development League, aka NBDL, the renamed JBL2, with nine teams and expansion on the way, too.

It all adds up to great confusion for fans, a watered-down product (but yes, more job opportunities for players and coaches), lack of regular appearances on major TV networks and the wrong kind of international attention.

Global basketball leaders, including FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann, have asked — and ordered — the JBA to get its act together for several years, including during long-winded visits to Tokyo to meet the top brass, including former Prime Minister Taro Aso. After FIBA’s December visit to Tokyo, JBA deputy chairman Yasuhiko Fukatsu told reporters, “We need to work on the homework we were given from FIBA.”

My instant reaction at that time? This sounds like children being ordered what to do because they need direction. That’s not a good sign, folks.

* * *
Despite starting up as a breakaway circuit formed from the old JBL (Niigata Albirex BB and Saitama Broncos joined forces with four expansion teams, Sendai 89ers, Oita HeatDevils, Osaka Evessa and now-defunct Tokyo Apache), the bj-league’s gross mismanagement and overlapping crises — mass exodus of personnel every year, nonstop growth and woeful marketing and promotions, among others — have given JBA and NBL leaders every incentive to not seriously consider putting together a merger plan for the NBL and bj-league.

Instead, the JBA can simply do what it wants (or do nothing at all).

Even though the bj-league now has teams in nearly half of Japan’s 47 prefectures and has had sustained growth for nearly a decade, it’s still not recognized as anything more than a freak show and/or a pseudo-pro league by the JBA’s old-guard leadership.
Blame the bj-league’s arrogant leadership for not finding ways to be embraced by the only national governing body that matters for the sport. Blame bj-league commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi and his inner circle for doing very little to even suggest they are interested in integrating the sport.

And blame short-sighted NBL and JBA leaders for not aggressively seeking ways to reach out to the bj-league. (Regular collaboration and interleague play would create money-making opportunities, it says here.)

So this is what remains: Two leagues heading in the same direction on metaphorical trains, but on parallel tracks … with no planned destination.

But, as troubling as all of this may be to those who wish for one unified league between the NBL and bj-league, this is what’s happening: “There’s no crossing of railways for the two leagues,” one Hoop Scoop confidant declared.

* * *

Toddlers don’t congregate at the negotiating table, nor are they known for deep-rooted animosity.

Keep that in mind, when you consider the following: the JBA doesn’t recognize the value of taking the bj-league seriously, as its members haven’t sought to establish legitimate ties with the upstart circuit.

Within the JBA, “I’m confident no one can respect (or) understand the present bj-league people, officially and unfortunately,” a basketball insider told me recently.

The fledgling league, now in its ninth season, became Japan’s first men’s professional basketball league when play began in the fall of 2005. (That was an important first step in the right direction for the sport here.)

But since then, the bj-league, especially since the global financial crisis in 2008, has been besieged by internal problems, most of which it’s brought on itself by not having real leadership in charge. Case in point: During former Chicago Bulls head coach Bill Cartwright’s 28-game stint as Osaka Evessa bench boss last season, not one league official ever paid an official visit to Cartwright or reached out to him, Hoop Scoop has been informed by multiple sources who pay attention to these things. And this was a guy who won three NBA championships as Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teammate! Ridiculous.

So, for the NBL and JBA side, where’s the opportunity for a genuine negotiating partner?

And will a merger between the bj-league and the NBL, P-League or whatever new name is concocted by the JBA, actually happen within the next 10 years?

“Right now I’m able to predict nothing in the coming 10 years,” the source said.

Does the bj-league’s rapid growth and expansion impress or even interest the NBL and its JBA cohorts?

“No,” the source insisted. “I don’t think so. Because the JBA is aiming to annex the bj-league, not to live and let live. The JBA does believe they are definitely able to dominate the bj-league because they are conscious of the bj-league with a stupid belief, ‘a small nation is dominated by a superpower.’

“On the other hand, the bj-league is just (like) North Vietnam, which never gave up against the U.S. and South Vietnam at that time (during the war).”

Using this historic parallel to the war in Vietnam, the source stated that Kawachi and bj-league board member and senior managing director Tatsuya Abe “are just like the late (Vietnam leader) Ho Chi Minh.”

In fact, he continued, “there’s no possibility of a return to the JBA for the bj-league.”

What exactly does that mean? I think it’s a clear sign the bj-league has chosen to distance itself from the national governing body as often as possible and to have as little direct contact as possible with JBA board members and key leaders.

And just remember: Even though the bj-league website link is featured on the JBA website and vice versa, there’s little real, or meaningful, interaction between the two parties.

It’s all a sad, sorry state of affairs for Japan’s men’s basketball.

“Basketball in Japan is really a mess with ‘leadership’ like this from the JBA,” one longtime coach concluded in an email.

Stop the madness.

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Feedback: Send column comments to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp