Dream Games provide taste of sport’s future in Japan

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

It’s been obvious for many years that Japan’s basketball leaders needed to take bigger, bolder steps to promote the game across the archipelago.

After all, marquee events and ambitious, big-scale marketing are essential to broaden interest in the sport, propelling it from a niche audience to one with mass appeal.

Sunday’s Dream Games, featuring the NBL’s Toyota Alvark and bj-league’s Akita Northern Happinets in the opening contest and the NBL’s Aisin SeaHorses and bj-league’s Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix in Game 2, was a step in the right direction.

For starters, the showcase event, which was held at Ota City General Gymnasium, attracted an estimated 100 accredited media and an enthusiastic crowd of 3,643, including large throngs of spectators from the Chubu, Tohoku and Kanto regions.

Toyota, last season’s NBL championship runnerup, won 98-66 against the rival league’s 2014-15 title-runnerup squad, and then reigning NBL title-winning Aisin earned an 83-73 triumph over the rival league’s defending champion Hamamatsu.

Fans had the opportunity to see several talented newcomers, including high-flying forward Richard Solomon of the Alvark, who poured in 18 points, including 7-for-7 from inside the arc, pulled down 13 rebounds and blocked two shots in nearly 22 pulsating minutes.

They also saw the outstanding all-around effort of Phoenix rookie guard Addison Spruill, a University of North Carolina Wilmington alum, who had the attention of all eyes in the gym during a spirited 21-point, 10-rebound, four-assist, one-steal outing.

Ultimately, though, what was most important about Sunday’s activities was a unified front that put the game of basketball before politics. And that in and of itself was often absent within the men’s pro game here for years. (The conflicting agendas of the bj-league and the NBL and lack of progress in meetings FIBA’s demands to merge the bj-league, NBL and NBDL into a single entity was a leading cause of the sport’s global governing body’s decision to suspend the Japan Basketball Association last November.)

With the FIBA-imposed ban lifted a few weeks ago and the formation of the B. League, a new three-division, 45-team circuit set to begin play in the fall of 2015, Sunday’s doubleheader had the upbeat vibe of a fresh start. And the four teams at Tokyo’s Ota Ward gym on Sunday have all been assigned to the B. League’s first division.

After the Phoenix’s Game 2 defeat, Hamamatsu bench boss Tomoya “Coach Crusher” Higashino smiled as he walked off the court and greeted the team’s fans, waving to many of them, shaking hands with some and exchanging high-fives with others.

Higashino, who guided the Phoenix to a bj-league title in May, recognizes the significance of the sport’s transformation that will take place under the leadership of new JBA president Saburo Kawabuchi, who was the co-chair of the Japan 2024 Task Force that overhauled the men’s hoop landscape here.

“Japan’s basketball is going to change under the leadership of Mr. Kawabuchi going forward,” Higashino said.

After his team’s dominating victory over Akita, Toyota swingman Daiki Tanaka summed up the experience this way: “It was a rare opportunity for us to play in a game like this, but it drew some attention. And we played with the pride representing the NBL and I’m happy that we came on top in the end.”

Tanaka’s teammate Michael Parker, a longtime star in the bj-league, told The Japan Times that Sunday’s two-game preseason showcase delivered a win-win situation.

“It was great to see both leagues come together and put on the Dream Games,” said Parker, who had 17 points and nine rebounds, including a game-high five offensive boards. “It was great to see a good number of fans from each of the four teams come to support the game.

“It is close to what the majority of people who are basketball fans want and have wanted for many years.”

Parker also made an enticing proposal for this season, calling for a “Super Cup Final Four” between the top finishers in the NBL and bj-league after the two leagues’ playoffs to be held at Saitama Super Arena.

In recent days, several NBL and bj-league teams squared off in preseason games, including the NBL’s Chiba Jets, guided by former Japan national team coach Zeljko Pavlicevic, against Akita on Sept. 5 and 6; the Jets recorded 69-66 and 90-80 victories.) Also, last Wednesday, Toyota topped the bj-league powerhouse Ryukyu Golden Kings 103-84 in Okinawa.

Reflecting on the opportunity to take on the Phoenix, Aisin guard/forward Kosuke Kanamaru, who had 13 points and four assists in Game 2, admitted there was a curiosity factor at play for the teams and spectators.

“This is something we didn’t get to have before, so I believe that the fans were looking forward to this,” said Kanamaru, who’s currently on the Japan national team. “I think that they were curious who was really better between the bj-league and the NBL, and this was an opportunity to prove that.”

Game officials from both leagues saw court time on Sunday. What’s more, for the Dream Games, the organizers settled on using the two leagues’ designated ball (Molten: NBL; Spalding: bj-league) for one half apiece. In the first game, players used the Molten ball first, then Spalding’s; the order was reversed for the later contest.

It was a minor quirk in another weekend of preseason preparation work for the four teams in the run-up to the regular season, which gets underway in early October.

Despite facing an unfamiliar foe from a different league, it was business as usual, according to Hamamatsu power forward Reggie Warren, who helped the Kyoto Hannaryz set a bj-league record with 44 regular-season wins last season before joining the rival Phoenix.

“We took it the same way, like a real game and, you know, wanted to come out and get better,” said Warren, who finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals. “And (as) they say, iron sharpens iron, and when you go up against a good team, it’s going to make you better, and that’s a great team.

“I think we got better today. They outlasted us toward the end and it was good competition and it was a good building (project) for us (moving) forward.”

Looking ahead to the launch of the B. League in 2016, Warren said Sunday was an important event on the JBA calendar.

“I think it was a great atmosphere,” declared Warren, a University of West Florida alum, who made his bj-league debut in 2006 with the Takamatsu Five Arrows. “You had fans from each club, they came out and supported. There was a lot of people out here. I think we played hard and gave them a good show. . .”

Akita forward/center Daichi Taniguchi insisted the overall superiority of the NBL (formerly the JBL) provides motivation to bj-league teams.

“I think that the bj-league players are like challengers, because they (NBL teams) have a lot of good players, good talent and they also have good skill, too,” Taniguchi said, making a general comparison between the leagues after the Alvark whipped his club by 32 points and took an 81-45 edge into the fourth quarter.

“Today, I was thinking all the time, ‘We are challengers, we have to do something and try everything, not like crazy stuff, but we have to do what we can do. And we have to see which level we are right now.’ ”

The reason?

“Next year, we are going to get together against them for a real game,” said the 25-year-old Taniguchi, a Nara Prefecture native who played at Arizona Western College and Southeastern Oklahoma State University and wrapped up his collegiate career in the spring. “So at that time, it’s too late for us to see which level we are at, when we play. . . . So I think we had a good experience for today, because we know where we are right now, and we know what we have to do this year.”

In other words, there’s a sense of urgency for the Happinets to elevate their game, with pride on the line, as basketball transitions to a new era in Japan.

“This year is the bj-league’s last year,” Taniguchi said, “and that’s important for us.

“But also we have to figure out how we can get to that level,” he added, referring to the likes of Aisin, Toyota and other NBL heavyweights.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.