NAGOYA – First in a two-part series
New bench boss Don Beck has set a noble goal for his Toyota Antelopes team in the Women’s Japan Basketball League this season.
That doesn’t refer to just a championship. Beck intends to bring a positive culture into the team, in terms of the way the staff and players are supposed to act on and off the court.
And they hope that it will eventually impact the entire women’s basketball landscape in Japan.
The Antelopes have been one of the best teams in the WJBL for the last decade, having made a few trips to the finals, and nothing changed when it came to setting their sights on the league championship trophy for the brand-new season, which tipped off on Oct. 9.
But the team has a new look. No, not just on its surface. Its character is also fresh.
The additions of American head coach Don Beck and ex-Japan national team star Yuko Oga are undoubtedly the major reasons.
Beck, who became the head coach of the Toyota Alvark men’s basketball team in 2010, made a surprise move to the women’s Toyota team this offseason after leading the Alvark to a runnerup finish last season. The 62-year-old guided the Alvark to the championship in the JBL (the predecessor of the NBL) and was named Coach of the Year in the 2011-12 campaign.
But when he arrived in the Tokai area to take charge of the Antelopes, he was left with his jaw on the floor because women’s basketball culture was so different and incomprehensible to him.
Now Beck and Oga speak in unison: Some aspects of Japan’s women’s basketball culture have to change.
In their view, women’s basketball clubs here are overly strict in their supervision of the players, subjecting them to harsh rules and requirements. For example, younger players are required to live in dormitories, players 25 years old or younger cannot have a driver’s license, and players are not allowed to have boyfriends/girlfriends.
“I mean, there’s unbelievable rules,” Beck told The Japan Times in a recent interview in Nagoya.
Beck, who previously coached professional teams in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, says that the Antelopes are eliminating a lot of these senseless, arcane rules.
“We are trying to bring women’s basketball in Japan into the 21st century,” he said.
Oga, a popular 33-year-old guard, echoed Beck, saying, “I absolutely want to change that.”
Oga, a former player of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, doesn’t live at the team’s dorm herself, but heard from other Antelopes players that reside there that they even have to have dinner together there on their days off.
“I was so surprised by that,” she recalls. “Why would you have to meet with your teammates on your days off? You might have a teammate that you really get along with well, but even so, I’m not sure if you want to eat with your teammate on your day off.”
The dinner-at-the-dorm rule is just of many absurdities in women’s basketball. The problem is that the players are not able to bring the issue up with management even if they privately question it. In fact, they don’t even think of bringing it up because they just think it is what it is.
“That’s the question mark I have,” Oga says. “The management can say things to the players, but the players can’t. It’s one way. (But) Coach Beck tells us to not hesitate to say anything we have to say to him, whether it’s during a practice or a team dinner or whenever.”
Oga, who played for the powerhouse JX-Eneos Sunflowers for 12 seasons and was also a member of the Shanxi Xing Rui Flame in China two seasons ago, didn’t play the entire 2014-15 campaign. She was looking for a team overseas, but it just didn’t work out. She was still trying to play outside Japan this season, but she chose Toyota and she’s happy about her decision.
Among other reasons, Beck’s presence was huge for her in signing with the Antelopes, who finished fourth last season with a 20-10 record. Oga, who is nicknamed “Shin,” thought that it would be beneficial to play under a foreign coach when it came to seeking another opportunity overseas, and that it would also help her learn the game as she wants to eventually become a coach.
“When I think of my second career, I thought that there could be nothing negative about learning the game from different coaches,” Oga said. “It was so attractive for me that I’d be able to play under a foreign coach in Japan. I was thrilled to play under Coach Beck. And I also wanted to play at a team like Toyota, where all the people were ambitious about changes.”
Oga’s transfer to the new club wasn’t necessarily smooth, however. And that’s another issue that Beck and Oga think needs to be amended.
Again, she wasn’t able to don any team’s jersey last year. Because of the WJBL’s policy, JX still held her rights, but she wasn’t a free agent. Wherever she wanted to play, she needed permission from her old club.
And it was the same this time with her move to Toyota. She needed the company stamp of JX to come to Toyota (Oga says that JX told her to stay with the team, not as a player but as a coach).
“I wanted to keep playing, so I couldn’t take the coaching offer,” Oga says. “So I told the team that I wanted to go elsewhere, and then we started talking about which team I should go to and what the best timing to put me on the free agency list would be, and things like that. I had conversations with JX’s general manager and deputy director so many times. It wasn’t easy.”
Beck wasn’t aware of the rule, but felt that it was outrageous.
“That’s slavery,” he said.
Oga, as she has publicly stated, thinks that the players are also responsible for letting these rules continue in women’s basketball.
“How many of the players are aware of these rules?” Oga said. “I don’t think many do, and that’s the status quo in this league at the moment.”