Japanese basketball hurt by Robots debacle

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The NBL, one of the two top men’s basketball leagues in Japan, has endured a chaotic 2014-15 campaign, and the disarray reached its nadir with the management change of the Tsukuba Robots.

It came out of the blue for the fans. Just a week into the season in October, the NBL announced that Ibaraki Sports Academy (ISA), the Robots’ management company, would no longer run the club because of financial woes and the league would temporarily take over the team.

In early December, a new management company, Tsukuba Sports Entertainment (TSE), was approved as the team’s owner, with Takashi Yamaya, who had just stepped down as the league’s chief operating officer when ISA exited the picture, as its president.

In real life, a business can fail at any time, and on the surface, the Tsukuba case appeared to be just one of those situations. But this didn’t seem to just be about money. It was also about credibility and professionalism in Japanese basketball, and that seems to be the bigger issue.

With the management transition, a total of 11 players (two of whom came back and re-signed later) and head coach Donte’ Hill along with some other staff members parted ways with the Robots. It may seem that the players came to the decision to leave the team because they wouldn’t accept pay cuts they were offered by TSE, and Hill was just shown the door as the new management had no intention to retain the American, who had led the team to an 0-16 record from the start of the season.

But a salary reduction likely wasn’t the sole reason those members left the club. It had a lot to do with forfeiture of their trust and respect for new management or Yamaya.

Some of the departed players have taken to social media to publicly convey their messages to the fans. They insisted that they were offered pay cuts by Yamaya “unilaterally” during the negotiating process, believing he intended to force them off the team as part of cost-cutting moves (they claimed the amount of salary they were offered wasn’t even enough to cover their minimum expenses for daily life). They also stated that there was no explanation why Yamaya, who had resigned from his NBL executive post to take responsibility for the confusion of the managerial switch, became the president of TSE (the players hinted that they could have re-signed with the team with a different person at the helm).

The “reborn” Robots debuted under TSE against the Chiba Jets at a tiny local gym in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Dec. 6 (the Robots played with newly assembled players, the majority of whom had just signed with the club).

Before the game tipped off, Yamaya, with tears in his eyes, stood in the center circle and gave an apologetic and thankful message to the audience at the arena. And after the game, Yamaya had a media availability session to share his thoughts with reporters. But facing some tough questions, Yamaya, who was sobbing two hours before, took a defensive, defiant tone.

For example, when he was asked if he didn’t doubt his decision to take the president’s position from an ethical standpoint, his response was: “We have the example that the Osaka governor became Osaka mayor (current Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto resigned as Osaka governor in 2011 to run for mayor before his term was up). So I don’t understand what’s strange with that.”

Regarding accusations by former players, mainly posted on blogs and SMS, Yamaya did not reveal why he didn’t want to discuss the matter with the media.

“I haven’t seen any of those things on the Internet, so I’m sorry, but I can’t respond (to the players),” Yamaya said.

The Japan Times attempted to contact NBL president Mitsuru Maruo for this article, but he wasn’t made available for comment.

Regarding the departed Tsukuba players insisting that they were unilaterally handed new contracts by TSE, Yamaya said in a matter-of-fact tone: “We think we just had negotiations with them in ordinary ways.”

The Robots are 3-32, the NBL’s worst record, through the weekend.

The departed players criticized how the NBL handled the situation as well. Allegedly, ISA’s financial problems didn’t just arise in October; instead, they started in mid-summer, and the delayed payments of player salaries had already begun. But the NBL tried to keep the Robots in the 13-team league by replacing its management, instead of barring the team from playing in the 2014-15 campaign.

Allegedly, team ownership was going to be replaced by robotics and technology company Cyberdyne Inc., the team’s biggest sponsor, but the move didn’t happen.

According to some of those departed players, they asked the league for help when they faced the financial crisis, and NBL president Maruo stepped up by supplying them with their unpaid salaries. But it was only a stop-gap solution, and the Robots entered the season with the status quo under ISA, which lasted only a week into the season.

Primarily, ISA should be the most responsible for this entire saga. But the league also bears some responsibility for allowing such a financially vulnerable company to run the team (Forget about the audits that the league imposes every few months; it proved to not work in this case). It’s not typical for a pro sports club’s management to be replaced during a season; the offseason is the appropriate time for such a move.

If anything like this happened in the NBA, the league would step in quickly to address the problem in order to minimize the damage to its image and the business of the entire league.

Unfortunately, it would probably be difficult to legally make the league responsible for the Robots crisis. A lawyer familiar with sports law in Japan told this newspaper that it “would not be realistic” to legally demand that the league takes some responsibility for this case.

“It looks like the league stepped in and paid salaries for the players (until the new management was be approved) because they were sympathetic with them, but they don’t have any legal obligations,” the lawyer said. “So it would probably be difficult to sue the league.”

But still, one would think that this has got to be corrected, for the sake of Japanese basketball. It pleases nobody, and leaves a negative image on the sport and the NBL, the Japan Basketball League’s successor.

Hill, meanwhile, has groaned in anguish about this issue, because none of his problems have been resolved, not even by an inch.

He first landed in Japan three years ago to take the head coaching job at the Daytrick Tsukuba, a second-tier club in the JBL2 (the predecessor of the NBDL, which made the name change for the 2013-14 season). He arrived in the northern Kanto area with a large amount of ambition. Hill said in passionate tones that he has given everything he’s got for the team and cares about his players and staff, at times trying to be a big brother to them.

“Everybody, you take chances on accomplishing your dreams,” Hill said. “My dream of being a professional basketball coach brought me to Japan.”

But despite Hill’s dedication, he was hit hard with a miserable end result. All of a sudden, he was let go, without any compensation for losing his job. Hill said that he hasn’t been paid for November, and all the things that he had an obligation to pay for, such as his apartment and Internet service, were canceled. He hasn’t even been paid the money to return to the United States and send his belongings back there.

“My living situation is not looking well,” Hill said recently. “I had (someone) knocking on my door yesterday, asking me, ‘When are you leaving?’ Nobody’s told me what deadline I had to leave.”

Hill said he has completely been mistreated by the team, ownership regimes and the league.

“The crazy thing is, a new management comes in, and they have an opportunity to fix the situation,” said Hill, who guided the Daytrick to a third-place finish in the 2012-13 JBL2 season.

“But because of a lack of the compassion, they don’t try to fix the situation. They just push everybody out and try to start a new situation.

“That’s a level of ethics that is unexplainable in my opinion. Those are small things, those are my basic needs. I’m not asking you for my job back. I’m just asking you to allow me to move from this situation with dignity and respect.”

Regarding Hill’s claims about the new management, TSE, Yamaya wrote an email to The Japan Times. “When the ownership was switched to the new company, we told Mr. Hill’s agent that we would not sign with Mr. Donte’ Hill.”

Hill’s not angry about being fired. Instead, he’s shocked by the lack of professionalism from those who he thought should have taken responsibility for the Robots’ problems.

“People lose jobs all the time,” Hill said. “It’s how unprofessional this process has been from beginning to end.”

Hill has stayed in Japan, seeking to resolve his situation. And everybody he’s spoken to, including the league office, has told him it’s a matter that belongs to Tsukuba’s old management, which probably doesn’t have any money whatsoever. So Hill is pretty much stranded.

And Hill said that when things like this happen, especially to a foreigner, it could have an even greater negative impact on Japanese basketball.

“I didn’t expect this from Japanese basketball because of the positive working relationship they’ve maintained over the years,” said Hill, a former assistant for the Jacksonville Giants of the American Basketball Association. “This unfortunately casts a negative light on those relations and jeopardizes the future of import coaches that might be deterred from working with the organization out of fear.”

Coincidence or not, Hill’s not the only foreigner to have been removed from his head coaching position in this NBL season. Juan Manuel Hurtado Perez (Levanga Hokkaido), Eric Gardow (Wakayama Trians; he was associate head coach, but the de facto head) and Danny Yoshikawa (Hyogo Storks) have also been let go following Hill.

Hill said that he came forward because others might have to go through a similar situation.

“There may be another coach, maybe five years from now,” said Hill, a native of Jacksonville, Florida. “There may be another coach that’s going through this right now, and I know there have been coaches that have gone through this before.”

Some players remained with the Robots, agreeing to the new contracts issued by TSE. Some didn’t hesitate to re-sign; others agonized over the decision.

Veteran point guard Kazuyuki Nakagawa was one of the first players who raised his hand, declaring his desire to stay with the team. He said that while the disparity between those who were associated in this issue, including the players, could have been avoided by having better communication and discussions, he never thought of leaving the team for his own professional reasons.

“Tsukuba’s already lost its basketball team once (Daytrick disbanded),” said Nakagawa, a former ABA and bj-league player, after the aforementioned first game under TSE. “So I didn’t want the same thing to happen again. And look at these kids. This may be their only chance to see a pro basketball game in their whole life.”

Nakagawa’s loyalty is worthy of respect. Without the fans, a professional sport league won’t work.

But also, you can’t have a pro sports league mistreating players and the staff which runs teams.

Remember one of the reasons why the Japan Basketball Association has been suspended by FIBA?

A lack of governance. This Tsukuba case is a clear-cut example of that.

What’s more, following the Robots crisis, there was a managerial change with the cash-strapped Wakayama Trians, led by the Wakayama Prefectural Basketball Association, in January. Some coaches in the NBL have repeatedly told this reporter that the league lacked leadership.

“There’s no way that the league isn’t responsible (for the Robots),” former Tsukuba guard/forward Yusuke Okada, the Japan Basketball Players Association leader and one of the players who refused to re-sign with Robots’ management, said in an interview with Sportsnavi.

Hill cited a Martin Luther King Jr. quote to describe the Tsukuba case:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Hill added, “It’s bigger than basketball. It’s a matter of professionalism.”

It’s been more than two months since the managerial change was completed, and this issue has been wearing thin with time. But it should not fade away just because it happened to a small club in a small city in Ibaraki.

Cases like this are preying on Japanese basketball and jeopardizing its future.