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Fairness prevails in Hiroshima saga

by Ed Odeven

It’s no surprise that the Hiroshima Lightning have endured a soap opera-like saga before even playing their first bj-league game.

In fact, it’s quite predictable.

Leadership woes and institutional ineptitude have plagued Japan basketball for many decades, and a fundamental lack of understanding about the true value of cutthroat competition has held the sport back. And this is true in domestic and international basketball circles, as evidenced by the Japan men’s national team’s epic Olympic drought (the last time it competed in the quadrennial tournament was 1976).

The Lightning are an expansion team, but one that’s taken an unlikely journey in preparation for its first “real” season, starting in October.

The Hiroshima Pro Basketball Corp. was established in April 2013, but wasn’t wholeheartedly welcomed by the Hiroshima Prefectural Basketball Association to pursue its mission: to be a pro team.

As Lightning president/general manager Kenta Nakashima revealed to Hoop Scoop in a recent interview, recalling what he was told in December 2012 before the company’s establishment: “The (HPBA) had no intention to have a pro team in either the bj-league or the NBL.”

That message came from HPBA executive Nobuaki Ito, Nakashima recalled. (Ito, by the way, later became the president of the NBL’s Hiroshima Dragonflies, a pro team.)

Nakashima’s plans didn’t change, though.

“I decided that I needed to take time to establish a team that is rooted in the local community,” the 29-year-old Nakashima noted, reflecting on his plans. “Actually, most of the successful teams in the bj-league have taken three to five years to establish the relationship with the community before joining the league.”

For Hiroshima Pro Basketball Corp., this began by planting the seeds for future players by starting Hiroshima’s bj-league academy in 2013. Currently, there are around 500 academy members, and they wear the Lightning’s logo, uniform and team colors.

Teaching the game and competing in pro games are two different things, though. The Lightning’s first step forward was joining the bj-Challenge League, a tiny, new development circuit geared toward identifying potential players for the bj-league. The Hyogo Impulse also fielded a team for the inaugural bj-Challenge League season, a six-game slate that began in January.

Joe Navarro, a longtime assistant at Concordia University, now an NCAA Division II school in Portland, Oregon, was hired as Hiroshima’s first coach for the challenge league. He retains that title as the Lightning make preparations for the upcoming bj-league season.

Their entry into the bj-league, however, was a Plan B move. The bj-league had already awarded expansion franchises to Nagasaki- and Kanazawa-based companies, raising the total of teams to 24 for the 2015-16 season.

So what happened?

In March, Nagasaki Sports Town Management Co. Ltd. asked to be released from its contract to enter the league. This opened the door for the Lightning to join the league as commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi’s circuit fulfilled its goal of having an even numbers of teams — and a balanced schedule.

All of the above is only a minor part of the saga, however. FIBA, basketball’s world governing body, suspended the Japan Basketball Association last November after years of zero progress in meeting its demands.

FIBA took the appropriate measure, ordering a complete overhaul of the JBA and a forced merger between the bj-league, the NBL and the NBDL — all in all, 40-plus teams into a single pyramidal structure.

As part of this overhaul, the Japan 2024 Task Force, with co-chairmen Ingo Weiss, the FIBA treasurer, and Saburo Kawabuchi, the former Japan Football Association president and J. League chairman, has overseen the foundation being put in place for the three-tier Japan Professional Basketball League, which is set to start in the fall of 2016.

As the spring marched on, the task force examined each team’s finances and overall backing from their prefectural basketball associations — determining factors to approve their entry into the JPBL after paperwork was submitted by a reported 46 teams as of April 28. The HPBA, however, didn’t give initial support for the Lightning’s entry into the JPBL, choosing to side only with the Dragonflies.

According to basketball insiders, the old-boy network ties between the HPBA and Hiroshima’s soccer circles are also linked to the NBL’s Dragonflies, who completed their first-ever season this spring. Those hush-hush deal makers had no interest in supporting the Lightning’s move to the JPBL, which was ridiculous considering neither team had a history of success or failure or even a lengthy existence. Both should have received equal support from the HPBA without any hang-ups.

But without the HPBA’s endorsement, the Lightning were left in limbo, knowing about the guidelines that the task force had set. They could’ve been a team without a league —or folded.

Yet in a twist that perhaps would only happen during these wild, fluid times here for the sport, the Lightning took their case — and fight for acceptance — to the Japan Sports Arbitration Agency on June 12 before withdrawing its appeal days later.

Behind closed doors, Kawabuchi, a legit power broker, exerted pressure on the HPBA to further consider the Lightning’s entry into the league, sources have told Hoop Scoop.

“We decided to deal with the issue sincerely until the end and hoped for a peaceful resolution to advance with the basketball world,” Nakashima said.

Nakashima credits the task force for seeing the big picture and not being blinded by old cliques and prejudices.

“The task force said they want us to join and extended the deadline,” the Hiroshima native commented this week.

“Finally, Japan’s basketball has currently been advancing a lot all over Japan with the help of the task force. Hiroshima Prefecture also has to advance to the new era.

“We had some issues with the HPBA, but we are heading to a resolution. For the future of the Hiroshima kids, we will make the effort to establish a new confidence with the HPBA and deal with them sincerely.”

The Japan 2024 Task Force hasn’t yet announced the full three-tier lineup of teams for the JPBL’s 2016-17 season, but Nakashima’s team now appears headed toward receiving a full-scale endorsement from the powers-that-be, with necessary support and acceptance from regional and national leaders.

Refreshingly, it’s a step in the right direction for Japan basketball.

The Dragonflies and Lightning both deserve a shot at building successful teams and growing the sport in Hiroshima Prefecture.

Staff writer Hiroshi Ikezawa contributed to this report.