Yuta Tabuse was the last man to arrive to speak to reporters on this particular day. But it probably wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last time.
The reason is obvious: The 33-year-old star guard, who’s had to cope with a series of injuries, is known for his thorough physical care for his body after games.
“Sorry, I’m late,” said an apologetic Tabuse, a Link Tochigi Brex point guard, after the team’s 89-74 loss to the powerhouse Toyota Motors Alvark at Tokyo’s Sumida General Gymnasium last Friday night.
While professional athletes are expected to speak to the media, it is understandably a part of Tabuse’s professionalism to spend such a long time for treatment on his damaged muscles and ligaments. He has been sidelined for numerous injuries, mostly leg ailments, in the past.
But this NBL season, Tabuse has been much healthier, at least healthy enough to not miss a single game. The Yokohama native has played in all 48 of his team’s contests, leading the way with 32:25 minutes per game.
“I appreciate that I’ve been able to become injury-free,” said Tabuse, the first and only Japanese man to ever play in the NBA. “I’m pleased that I can play this much.”
As long as he’s on the floor, he wants to present the best Yuta Tabuse he can to the team and his fans. But it’s not just as a competitor, but also as a professional entertainer. For the latter part, maybe he learned it by playing in the United States (he competed in the NBA Development League for three years as well), or maybe he felt that way before that, since he was a national phenom as a superstar player for legendary Noshiro Technical High School in Akita Prefecture during the late 1990s.
“I want to lead the team to wins, while I want to please those who watch us play,” said Tabuse, who appeared in four games for the Phoenix Suns in the 2004-05 season. “And more than anything, I want to enjoy myself.”
Tabuse is having one of the best seasons of his professional career. The 173-cm player is averaging 15.1 points (second on his team), 5.8 assists (leads the league) and 2.0 steals (second in the league) while shooting 86.9 percent on free-throw attempts (second in the league).
“I’m trying to do everything,” said Tabuse, who guided Link Tochigi to a JBL championship in the 2009-10 campaign. “I didn’t set any individual goals, but I was going to contribute in all aspects. That’s how I’m feeling when I play every game.”
Currently, the Brex (27-21) are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and are on the borderline for the postseason, battling for the East’s third and final playoff spot with the Levanga Hokkaido (28-20), with six games remaining in the regular season.
“We just want to win all the games we will play,” Tabuse said. “We don’t care who we play against anymore. Every game will be crucial for us.”
It ain’t over yet: For the six-team NBL playoffs, five of six playoff berths are locked up, and for the majority of the clubs, the door has already been slammed shut.
Will those teams play for nothing for the reminder of the season?
Tim Lewis, head coach of the Hitachi Sunrockers (18-30, fifth in the East), said that it isn’t a daunting task to motivate his players, though his team is already out of the postseason picture.
“I mean, you’ve got to re-address your goals, individual goals and team goals for your players,” Lewis said. “There’s players, maybe looking for other jobs next year, maybe staying, maybe wanting more minutes next year.”
Reggie Geary, head coach for the Chiba Jets (17-31, sixth in the East), a first-year club in the NBL, said that he would buy into the fact that since it was their inaugural season in the new league (the club moved from the bj-league over the last summer), it would be hard to fight for a postseason spot.
But he added that his team would keep playing as it’s done to prepare for next season.
“For us to be in contention next year, we need to finish the season almost like we’re in the playoffs,” said Geary, who led the Yokohama B-Corsairs to the bj-league title last year. “The next four weeks are our playoffs, and we’re trying to stay focused.”
The Jets will take on the East’s top two teams, Toshiba Brave Thunders and Toyota, over the next two weekends.
“We definitely want to beat those big corporate teams before the season ends,” one Jets official said enthusiastically.
Meanwhile, Lewis insisted that the current playoffs system was something the league should re-consider for the sake of competition.
“I think if you have four (teams) from each league as anywhere else would, you have really competitive games, right through the regular season,” the British coach said, advocating an increase in playoff teams. “I think that’s one of the things that have to be addressed by the league.”
Keep on rolling: Toyota appears to be invincible right now as it has extended its winning streak to 24 games.
Actually, the long triumphant run nearly came to an end in the Alvark’s latter game of a two-game series against the Brex last weekend. They were down by two points with a few seconds left, but American center Philip Ricci hit a 3 at the final buzzer to keep the streak alive (80-79 win).
Toyota (40-8) is in the second place in the East, trailing Toshiba (41-7), which has also been on a roll with a 15-2 record in its last 17 contests.
In the West, meanwhile, the Wakayama Trians have won their last nine games and are tied with the conference-leading Aisin SeaHorses, who have gone 6-6 in their past 12 games.
Technically, Aisin still sits in first place because it’s gone 4-0 against Wakayama so far. But the battle for the No. 1 seed in the conference for the playoffs appears to be up in the air.
Quick exit: Just a week after they fired bench boss Norman de Silva, the Kumamoto Volters released interim head coach Shinji Tomiyama, who left the club before last weekend’s series.
Club president Satoshi Yunoue has replaced Tomiyama as the sideline supervisor.