Yoyogi National Gymnasium holds a special place in Japan basketball history, including its role in hosting tournament games during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
So it was only appropriate that the B. League ushered in a new era of men’s pro basketball by staging its inaugural season opener at the historic arena in the heart of Tokyo on Thursday night. Yoyogi has been considered the mecca of Japan basketball for decades, with men’s and women’s national team games, annual college and high school tournaments and Emperor’s Cup contests enriching its significance year after year, decade after decade.
The Alvark Tokyo and Ryukyu Golden Kings provided another historic occasion in the opener, with Tokyo prevailing 80-75 before a packed house of 9,132 spectators.
Power forward Troy Gillenwater paced Tokyo, the former NBL (JBL successor) club that began play in 1948, with 14 points and had a key blocked shot late in the fourth quarter, while frontcourt mate Zack Baranski poured in 13 points, followed by veteran shooting guard Daiki Tanaka’s 12. Tanaka added six assists and three steals in a high-energy effort in 30-plus minutes.
Though he was 0-for-7 from 3-point range, Diante Garrett had 11 points and dished out five assists. Veteran big man Joji Takeuchi finished with nine points and a game-high 13 rebounds (six offensive). Shohei Kikuchi matched Takeuchi’s scoring output
Shuhei Kitagawa led Ryukyu with 16 points. Kings newcomers Mo Charlo and Lamont Hamilton had 11 apiece. Anthony McHenry and Shigeyuki Kinjo both scored nine points. Charlo was Ryukyu’s top rebounder (10 boards) and McHenry, who had two steals and two blocks, and Hamilton were the team leaders in assists (four apiece).
“As for this game, I told our team that more than win or lose, well, of course you want to win, but we wanted to ‘wow them,’ ” Alvark coach Takuma Ito said. “That’s what I told our guys. And it feels great that we were able to make them enjoy the game. Both teams are going to be more competitive and play more high-quality games.”
Joyful in victory, Ito added this heartfelt message to the fans: “So it’s good to watch on TV, but please come out to the arena to watch us play.”
Said Tanaka: “First off, I’m glad we wound up winning this opening game. Ryukyu is a great team as well so we knew the game would be like this and it feels great that we are the winning side. I was excited to play in front of the full-house crowd, and we are going to do our best to make the game more popular going forward, so please give us your support.”
At times, Ryukyu’s offense was disrupted by Tokyo’s tight, disciplined defense. This led to 20 turnovers, while the Kings handed out 10 assists. Simply put, the Okinawan visitors needed a few more possessions and a few more shots. The Alvark, meanwhile, finished with 17 assists and turned the ball over 15 times.
After the game, McHenry reflected on the overall experience as the new league grabbed center stage and the national spotlight.
“It was a great experience,” McHenry told reporters. “I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Asked about the level of play in the season-opening game, McHenry offered this assessment: “I expect it to get better. It was the first game of the season for both teams, but all in all I feel like we fit in among the best (teams).
“We came up short today, but I’m hopeful for the rest of the season.”
Looking at the new makeup of the B. League, McHenry said his team must make adjustments and preparations in order to grow and succeed.
“It’s really not up to what other teams do,” he said. “You scout for them and everything, but ultimately, if you don’t go out and play your game, you’re not going to win.”
From an entertainment standpoint, McHenry, who played for Georgia Tech in the 2004 NCAA Tournament title game in April 2004 against title-winning UConn, dished out praise for for the overall package, which included the flashy LED court, that the B. League delivered on Thursday.
“It was great. I’ve never seen anything like it,” McHenry stated.
The Ryukyu floor leader also admitted that “plays that guys usually make, we had a lot of mistakes at the beginning.”
Tokyo shot 9-for-25 from 3-point range and 24-for-50 from inside the arc. Ryukyu made 7 of 17 3s and was 22 of 54 from 2-point range.
Neither team shot well from the charity stripe; the Alvark were 5-for-12 and the Kings 10-for-18.
In the opening minute, Gillenwater, a New Mexico State alum, converted a bank shot in the paint for the league’s historic first points. Tokyo jumped out a to a quick 10-point cushion early in the game, moving the ball effectively on the perimeter and inside.
Trailing 14-4 after Alvark small forward Kikuchi’s 3-pointer, Ryukyu called a timeout with 6:42 to go in the first quarter.
The Okinawa-based squad regrouped and chipped away at the lead. Charlo trimmed the lead to 19-11 on a baseline 3 with about 4:30 left in the quarter.
Moments later, back-to-back Kazuya Hatano buckets pulled Ryukyu within 22-15 before McHenry drained a layup to make it 23-17.
The Alvark led 26-19 after one quarter. They had led by as many as 13 points in the opening stanza.
To open the second period, Ryukyu used a 6-0 spurt, getting layups from Hamilton, Kitagawa and Kinjo to slice the lead to 25-25, prompting a Tokyo timeout at the 8:36 mark.
Kitagawa buried a step-back jumper to give the Kings their first lead (27-26) of the game.
With each team playing one foreigner in the second quarter, the speed of the game picked up a bit as the players raced up and down the court for 10 minutes.
At halftime, Tokyo held a 43-36 advantage. The hosts got a big boost from Takeuchi, a longtime Japan national team member, in the second half as he scored six of his nine points before the break. He led all players with nine points and six boards at that point. Baranski had eight points before intermission.
Charlo and Kitagawa each had eight first-half points for Ryukyu.
Tokyo held a 23-20 rebounding advantage in the opening half. Other key first-half totals: Ryukyu committed 11 turnovers; Tokyo had six.
With under a minute left in the high-paced third quarter, Alvark sharpshooter Keijuro Matsui, a Columbia University product, sank a 3-pointer to give his team its largest lead up to that point, 62-48.
Ryukyu’s Naoki Tashiro answered with a long-range shot, but the four-time bj-league champion Golden Kings faced a 13-point deficit entering the fourth quarter.
With 6:39 left in the game, Garrett scored on a nifty scoop shot to maintain the hosts’ comfortable cushion. That made it 72-57, and Ryukyu called a timeout to regroup for the final stretch of the contest.
Despite the large deficit, the Kings’ hustle and energy never wavered, and it paid off. Charlo made a key steal and attempted a layup that missed its target, but McHenry, a bj-league legend, was in the perfect place to grab the rebound and slam in the putback that cut it to 72-63 with just under 6 minutes left and brought the Ryukyu faithful to their feet — and chants of “Go, Go Kings” followed, too.
Ryukyu kept fighting for loose balls and getting second- and third-chance opportunities, and one of those chances saw Ryuichi Kishimoto flush a left-side 3-pointer as the Kings comeback continued. They trailed 72-68 with 4:47 to play.
And, indeed, it had instantly become the tight game that B. League organizers had in mind for the opener.
But with about 3:30 left in the fourth, Tanaka knocked down a big 3 to give the Alvark a little breathing room — 77-69.
Kishimoto missed a pair of free throws with 2:42 remaining. But teammate Kitagawa canned a 3-pointer from the right wing to trim the deficit to 78-75 and keep the Kings’ victory hopes alive with less than 100 seconds remaining.
Tokyo missed a 3 and a layup on its next trip down the court.
The Kings couldn’t convert a 3 at the other end, and then Gillenwater earned a visit to the free-throw line, where he sank both shots to make it a two-possession game with 23.6 seconds left. That sealed the win as Ryukyu failed to score again the rest of the way.
Both teams received enthusiastic applause from the fans after the game.
In the paint: Even before the opening tipoff, there was plenty going on to keep fans and the media focused on the court, with a Kanto all-star team against a Tokyo-Tokai select team in a wheelchair basketball game. . . .
A festive, spectacle-packed introduction, including a taped message from NBA commissioner Adam Silver and an on-court appearance by well-known power forward Horace Grant, a fixture on the Chicago Bulls during the early years of the Michael Jordan-led championship dynasty in the 1990s, provided a memorable start for the league. (What’s more, a cheerleader representative from each of the B. League’s 18 teams was also introduced, giving the pregame festivities a nationwide appeal of beauty and elegance.) . . .
“Congratulations to the B. League on your launch,” Silver said in his opening remarks. He added that he’s confident the league will make its mark in Japan and fulfill the mission of its tagline — “break the border” — by raising the popularity of the sport.
Silver pointed out that the NBA’s first-ever overseas game was held in Japan, in 1990 (Utah Jazz vs. Phoenix Suns), and thus the league’s global growth is tied to this nation, too. . . .
League officials announced that more than 200 media were at the game. . . .
Before the game, B. League chairman Masaaki Okawa spoke on the court, delivering a warm greeting to the large crowd. “We’d like to give energy to Japan basketball,” Okawa said. “With that sentiment in mind, the B. League will challenge the future with dreams and high ambitions. I’m here to announce the inauguration of the B. League on Sept. 22, 2016.” . . .
Prior to opening tipoff, the teams announced how they would deploy their foreign players as per league rules. The on-the-court rule designation that both teams announced was as follows: Two foreigners in the first and fourth quarters, with one apiece in the second and third.
For each game, teams can designate which two quarters — any two — that they want to play up to two imports under B. League rules. The same goes for one import.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
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