All professional basketball leagues have people working behind the scenes or in roles that are less glamorous than the starting five or head coach.
For the Niigata Albirex BB, who became Japan’s first professional basketball team when it entered the old-school corporate Japan Basketball League in 2000, with current bj-league commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi calling the shots in the team’s front office, Hideki Takamori was one of those guys. For 13 seasons to be precise.
Takamori began his longtime role as Niigata’s team translator, plus additional duties, in 2001. Now, he has stepped down, making an announcement to the general public, team supporters and those who follow Japanese basketball via Facebook last week.
The 34-year-old Takamori, who is married, has returned to his hometown of Yokohama. He is currently not working in pro basketball. Throughout the league, Takamori’s dedication to his job didn’t go unnoticed. Motofumi Iguchi, who has worked in management for the Shiga Lakestars, Iwate Big Bulls and Osaka Evessa, said Takamori left a significant imprint at Niigata. He referred to him as a valuable role model and mentor.
Iguchi summed up his thoughts of Takamori with one word: “respect.”
“I learned many things from him and I know so many players had his support,” Iguchi told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “He showed us how you have to dedicate to the team and club. I had no chance to work for the same team with him, but I always thought there is the guy who gives his 100 percent for the team with strong spirits and loyalty.
“His support is not only on the court. I can’t even count how many American players had his support for players’ wives’ childbirth. He takes care of the team and players’ family.
He added: “I respect his decision, but many teams, players, team staff will miss him . . .”
Guard Nile Murry, who played for the Albirex from 2011-14, summed up the feelings of many foreign players who suited up with Niigata.
“Hideki Takamori is a good person,” Murry, who’s now with the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “He was very helpful and kind to my family. He was very important on the court translating. Off the court, he was priceless. The effort and time he made to accommodate the foreign players and our families makes him a good person. He was not just a translator but a friend to a lot of the players and staff. I’m sure he will be missed . . .”
Ex-Albirex center Chris Holm, who now plays for the Shiga Lakestars told this newspaper, “Hide was the heart and soul of the Albirex. I’ve been in Japan a long time, and I have never met someone who loved what he did as much as Hide did.
“He loved who he was working with and he loved the team and excitement that came with playing the game of basketball. He did a lot for me personally that I will never be able to repay him for, but I know that I’m not the only one who is not only grateful for what he’s done and having gotten to work with him, but grateful to just have met such an amazing and genuine human being.”
Two-time bj-league MVP Lynn Washington, now an assistant coach at San Jose (California) City College, commended the work Takamori did during his time playing for the Albirex over a decade ago.
“I was in Niigata when Hide first arrived there,” Washington told The Japan Times. “He came in shy and unsure of what to expect in dealing with foreigners. However after a few months he became comfortable with not only us as basketball players but with our families as well. It can be hard to find a quality translator, administrator, and friend all in one.
“If there was an award for best translator in Japanese basketball history Hide would be in the running,” added Washington, who won three titles as an Osaka superstar in the league’s first three seasons.
American Angie Taylor, who has followed the Albirex for years as an enthusiastic booster who has befriended many within the organization over the years, also noticed the impact Takamori made for Niigata.
“He was, by far, one of the best translators in the league,” Taylor told this newspaper on Thursday. “And in addition, he understood the often misunderstood value of taking care of the Niigata players when it came to cultural issues. I wish him all the best on his next venture. He will be sorely missed.”
What are some of Takamori’s favorite memories from his time with the Albirex?
He said he enjoyed working alongside Niigata coaches Masaya Hirose, Matt Garrison and Fujitaka Hiraoka, the current bench boss.
“The most unique experience was the night helping Chris Holm and Nile Murry’s wives giving birth in one Saturday night between home games — and we won both games against Osaka,” he recalled.
For him, the team’s consistency also remains a cherished memory.
“We couldn’t win the championship in the bj-league during my time with Niigata but we made the playoffs all nine seasons and appeared in the Final Four five times,” Takamori said.
“They will win the championship this season,” he predicted.
As far as establishing itself as a major part of the community, Takamori praised the organization for providing more events at home games for the fans, with better entertainment as the years moved on.
“Maybe the biggest impact we made in the Niigata community was starting a kids basketball school 12 years ago,” he said.
“Now over 250 kids all over Niigata Prefecture are enjoying basketball and some kids from our basketball school made the prefecture All-Star team or national competition at the high school level. I was lucky I was involved in all that.”
Upcoming schedule: The bj-league’s 10th regular season tips off on Oct. 4.
But first things first. The upcoming three-day weekend will give many teams their first preseason test, including contests against NBL, NBDL and Taiwanese teams.
Saturday’s games are Fukushima Firebonds vs. Iwate Big Bulls (1 p.m.; first contest in Fukushima franchise history), Toyama Grouses vs. Taiwan squad Pure-Youth Construction (2 p.m.), Shinshu Brave Warriors vs. the NBL’s Mitsubishi Diamond Dolphins (2 p.m.), Niigata at NBL’s Link Tochigi Brex (2 p.m.), Aomori Wat’s vs. Yokohama B-Corsairs (2 p.m.), Saitama Broncos vs. Tokyo Cinq Reves (2 p.m.) and Ryukyu Golden Kings vs. Akita Northern Happinets (6 p.m., at Tokyo’s Ota City Gymnasium).
The Sunday games are Niigata vs. Mitsubishi (2 p.m.), Toyama vs. Pure-Youth Construction (2 p.m.), Rizing Fukuoka vs. the NBDL’s Renova Kagoshima (3:30 p.m.) and Oita HeatDevils vs. NBL’s Kumamoto Volters (7 p.m.)
On Monday, it’s Fukuoka vs. Kumamoto (12 p.m.), Saitama vs. Tokyo (3:30 p.m.) and Oita vs. Kagoshima (3:30 p.m.)
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