MORIOKA, IWATE PREF. – The Fukushima Firebonds’ season-ending loss on Sunday closed one chapter in the team’s history. But of greater significance was the foundation the first-year franchise built over the past eight months.
This is where you start: The Firebonds have a determined, capable young head coach in Hiroki Fujita, a versatile, talented roster, a rabid fan base and, you can’t forget, the collective experience of fighting for (and earning) a playoff spot on the final weekend of the regular season.
“A good thing for us is our ability to fight through adversity,” Fujita said after the Firebonds’ 95-71 Game 2 loss to the Iwate Big Bulls in their bj-league Eastern Conference first-round series on Sunday. “We had to go through a lot with the import players’ injuries, but we fought through them. Nobody counted us in for where we at today, and we lost to a very, very good team in Iwate.
“I can’t be satisfied for where we are at right now but I’m also at the same time very proud of where we are, where we came from and, you know, point A to point B, I felt, was a big positive accomplishment for this team.”
Fujita deserves a big part of the credit, too. And it starts with his positive attitude and desire to improve.
Having watched the 29-year-old Fujita’s transition from player to assistant coach to head coach over the past seven years, I’ve seen a young man constantly seeking wisdom and better ways to approach his job.
He has grown into his role as the bench boss. With his suit jacket already taken off a few minutes into Game 1 on Saturday, he patrolled the sideline with purpose, barking out orders and encouraging his players with equal measure. Fast forward to the third quarter in the series opener, when Fujita slapped forward Shota Kanno on the back after he was fouled while attempting a 3-pointer.
From the stands, several hundred purple-clad Firebonds fans also proved in this series that they will hold nothing back after the opening tip.
They shouted “Go, go, go” throughout both games. They were loud and coordinated in their chants. They demonstrated how important this team is to them and their communities at a time when a big portion of the news from Fukushima Prefecture centers on the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, disasters and the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
Indeed, the Firebonds are a source of pride and excitement for them.
Before the series tipped off on Saturday night, I spoke to an organizer of one of the team’s loyal, core support groups, which is known affectionately as the “Standing Boosters.”
A friendly woman named Yurika Suzuki said a team official coined the appropriate nickname.
“Because,” she said, “we’re standing, cheering, boosting.”
And that fan support will remain pivotal to the team’s growth as a pro basketball franchise.
Returning to Fujita’s point about the team’s rapid progression, he was asked what was the biggest thing directing movement from point A to point B.
“I think it was a combination of leadership from our key players — (injured post player) Terrance Shannon was the heart and soul of our team. He kept us going physically,” the coach said.
Shannon, who averaged 14.5 points and 11.6 rebounds, proved to be one of the league’s top inside players in his 34 games before going down with a season-ending knee injury in late February.
Fujita said, “Verdell (Jones) was the catalyst of our offense and he carried us, and this guy in front of me, (Masaya) Karimata, he also carried this team on his back.
“There’s good leadership on our team and our young guys followed. We have a good group of guys that has good heart, good character, that accepted their roles, which led to a good team chemistry at the same time.”
I asked Fujita how valuable an experience it was for his team to face the Big Bulls in the playoffs. Then he was asked this: How much of a springboard was it for the organization for the upcoming season?
“Absolutely,” Fujita said, “it was very important to experience the playoff atmosphere, to be honest with you. It’s a different game. Guys are more physical, less foul calls, and we have to adjust, which we couldn’t, obviously, but we lost to a very good team in Iwate and we got the privilege of playing in this kind of atmosphere. … Not every team made it to the playoffs.
“For a first-year franchise to be at this point, and it was our goal from day one to make it to the playoffs, we achieved it. We can’t be satisfied but I am happy where we are at right now.”
Meanwhile, Karimata’s career progressed by leaps and bounds this season, not unlike a move from a beach bungalow to a penthouse suit overlooking the Hudson River. The dynamic guard went from a little-known reserve to one of the circuit’s emerging backcourt stars. His minutes increased dramatically (to 1,977 from 597 last season for the Ryukyu Golden Kings) and his scoring output rose in a similar fashion (to 15.1 from 2.7 in 2013-14). He was fifth in the league in assists (4.4) and finished in the top 10 in steals (1.8).
Talking to a group of reporters after Sunday’s game, Karimata said the overall experience this season was positive. The Okinawa native expressed the view that from the start of the season “home and away, wherever, we had
strong support from our fans.”
He stated that his teammates made the season a “satisfactory experience.”
To reach the playoffs showed the team’s inner drive despite not having past experiences to guide it.
What was the key? a reporter asked Karimata.
“Good teammates, good fan support, good team staff and a good coach,” he said. “A good season.
“In our first season, as a young team, to get here is … just the beginning,” the 27-year-old added.
Asked about the dramatic increase in his own playing time compared to last season, Karimata revealed it gave him a big confidence boost.
Indeed, he capitalized on the opportunity. He also received the bj-league’s Most Improved Player Award. (In fact, he was the perfect candidate.)
Explosive forward Edward Morris, a key contributor for the Shinshu Brave Warriors in their inaugural campaign (2011-12) who joined the Tokyo Cinq Reves in 2013 before moving on to Fukushima, recognizes that a playoff appearance for his current squad wasn’t Mission Impossible.
“Many people have their perception of first-year expansions are probably going to struggle a little bit,” he told Hoop Scoop, “because they have to get adjusted to the bj-league and everything in it. And it kind of looked like that in the beginning of the season, when we were 1-9, and it was kind of looking like it was going in that direction. But we just remained calm and had to deal with our adversity, because the saying is, ‘adversity builds character.’ “
He pointed to November, when the Firebonds went 5-5 and won consecutive games twice, as a turning point for the team.
“We just seized upon that moment,” said Morris, a Pittsburg State (Kansas) alum.
“For a first-year team to get a couple wins back to back, it builds confidence in the players and the team, and I think from that point on, we were going more game by game,” added Morris. “It was unfortunate that we had some injuries in the middle of the season, but again, we just stuck as a team together and just kept it going and got to the point where we captured the seventh seed.
“Making the playoffs was a big accomplishment for us as a first-year team.”
Morris is right. The Fukushima Firebonds delivered a valiant fight, a commendable effort, this season, which was only the beginning for the franchise.
The building blocks are there for future success.
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