Kawabuchi to help lead task force charged with solving Japan’s basketball impasse


Staff Writer

FIBA, basketball’s world governing body, on Wednesday announced the formation of a task force to lay a new foundation for the sport in Japan, and former J. League chairman Saburo Kawabuchi was appointed co-chairman.

The move signaled the willingness of the Japan 2024 Task Force, which was unveiled at a Tokyo hotel during a news conference, to think outside the box — outside the sport, literally, for leadership.

In recent weeks, pressure has grown for the Japan Basketball Association to work with sports, government and business leaders to meet targets set by FIBA — including a blueprint to merge the JBA-backed 13-team NBL and the independent 22-team bj-league which was not fulfilled before an Oct. 31 deadline, which led to FIBA suspending the JBA on Nov. 25.

The 78-year-old Kawabuchi brings a fresh voice and an outside perspective on sports governing, and is recognized as a leader within the Japanese sports community. Ingo Weiss, a member of FIBA’s central board and German Basketball Federation chairman, joins Kawabuchi as the task force’s other co-chairman.

FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann declared Wednesday “a very important day for Japanese basketball . . . a historic day.”

“We look forward to creating a painting, a new structure (for Japanese basketball),” added Baumann.

“We don’t know yet how the final painting will look . . . but we will make basketball very successful in the future (here),” he vowed, sitting alongside Weiss and Kawabuchi.

Working with the Japanese Olympic Committee, Tokyo 2020 Olympic Organizing Committee members and Hakubun Shimomura, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and industry leaders in sports and business, among others, FIBA set the wheels in motion for the task force to be formed.

“We’ve created the process,” noted Baumann, speaking to reporters in a group interview after the formal news conference.

“We’ve done our job. . . . Now it’s the task force.”

There are eight members on the task force’s central board: JOC vice president/secretary general Tsuyoshi Aoki, Japan Sports Association secretary general Joichi Okazaki, JBA acting president Tetsuo Umeno, NBL club Toshiba Brave Thunders general manager Chikahiro Hayashi, bj-league team Ryukyu Golden Kings president Tatsuro Kimura, Waseda University women’s basketball coach Mikiko Hagiwara, Dentsu Inc. executive Kiyoshi Nakamura and Masaki Sakaida, a lawyer at Yotsuyabancho Law Office.

Baumann and Kimito Kubo, director general of the Sports Ministry’s Sports and Youth Bureau are the task force’s appointed observers.

Despite his gravitas in Japan sports circles, Kawabuchi, who served as the Japan Football Association president from 2002-08, seemingly embraced this new challenge with a bit of reluctance.

“It’s been 13 years since I had the title of chairman, and I don’t know if I should feel pleased or not,” Kawabuchi said. “But Baumann begged me to take it and I thought that I wanted to give the best I can to Japanese basketball, in the remainder of my not-so-long life.

“When we started the J. League (in 1993), we had a five-year period to prepare. And, of course, it was our field (soccer) and we knew what would go right and what would go wrong, but still it took us five years (to get the league started).”

Kawabuchi recognizes that time is of the essence for the task force, noting 2016 Rio Olympic qualifying tournaments will be held this summer for men’s and women’s national teams.

“. . .We have to present a progress schedule for the top league by early June, not within June,” said Kawabuchi. “We’ve got to set the deadline and propose it to FIBA and then get it back to the JBA. So we will only have four-plus months.

“The main issue is to create the top league, merging the NBL and bj-league. Baumann has demanded the unification of the leagues, the governance of the JBA and development of the national team, including younger generations as the main themes.”

Kawabuchi observed that “unification (meetings) have been held in the last six years and the talks have just been going around in circles, so you would think it’s not going to be easy to resolve it. But we must do it, otherwise we can’t make the Olympics.”

Meanwhile, Weiss brings an outsider’s perspective from his various experiences working in German basketball and as FIBA’s treasurer.

“I’m the only foreigner on this task force,” he said. “Everybody else is Japanese and all of them are specialists in sports and business. We thought that it was important that the task force was established by Japanese.

“Each one of us will pay efforts in his or her own field to start up the new JBA. Japan is a great country, it’s a country of the rising sun, and we hope its basketball will get better there.”

Why does the task force name include the year 2024? Baumann was asked.

It’s “not about solving one problem,” the FIBA chief said. “This is to create a base for the next 10 years. . . . It’s simply to make the people think long term.” He added that the impasse between the rival leagues has been a big problem for 10 years.

Kawabuchi sees a chance now to make positive changes within Japanese basketball, which has been plagued by poor attendance and financial woes for many teams in both leagues.

“I believe that basketball has the potential to become the next professional sport, following the J. League,” Kawabuchi said. “This is one of the top class sports in Japan. We want to do our best to create the top league with strong will.”

How can this be done?

“They need to take roots in local towns, cooperating with the local basketball associations and administrations. And they’ll need (better) arenas,” said Kawabuchi, who described the atmosphere at last season’s bj-league playoff games as “great.”

“I think that the bj-league has developed their management and business abilities in the past 10 years and it’s great on their part,” he added.

On the other hand, he said, “the NBL is rather a corporate-oriented league and you can’t really call it an entertainment-oriented league. I would like to go out to games from now on and present my own thoughts.”

The task force will be divided into three working groups: one focused on a top league merger, another dealing with reforming JBA governance and a third committed to development of the game in Japan at all levels, including the national teams and at the grassroots levels.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.