Whenever he stepped on the court during 11 distinguished seasons as a special ambassador for Japan pro basketball, Cohey Aoki increased the visibility of the sport.
Fans loved watching him play, and rightfully so. He displayed a pure joy for the game, but exhibited a fierce competitive desire that couldn’t be tamed.
On Friday evening, Aoki announced his retirement, just weeks after he planned to join the Shimane Susanoo Magic, effectively ending his career without playing a game for Shimane in the new B. League. In a long statement posted on basket-count.com, Aoki admitted that he doesn’t have the energy to play at a high level anymore, but said he’s grateful for all the support he’s received over the years, adding that he had a “lot of great experiences over the years.”
Aoki was expected to join Shimane in mid-October, according to a hoop insider. He changed his mind.
He was the most popular player in bj-league history. He was the only player to appear in nine bj-league All-Star Games (there were 10). His career included stints with the Tokyo Apache (2005-11), Osaka Evessa (2011-12), Tokyo Cinq Reves (2012-13) and his hometown Rizing Fukuoka (2013-16). His enduring nickname, “Mr. bj-league,” was an appropriate moniker that summed up his important place in Japanese basketball and in the fledgling league that had six teams in its first season and 24 clubs in Aoki’s final season.
Aoki, who turns 36 in December, told The Japan Times on Monday while reflecting on his change of heart, that it was a “difficult decision.” He admitted that he even if he started playing now, he didn’t have enough stamina “to play a full season.” He said that he wishes “nothing but success” for Shimane.
On his Facebook page, Aoki issued an apology to basketball fans, who looked forward to watching him play this season.
“I really apologize from the bottom of my heart,” Aoki wrote. “Thank you very much for 11 years.”
Perhaps it was only appropriate that he wore his iconic No. 11 jersey for 11 seasons. (NBA Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas was another player whose impact was much greater than his height; he wore No. 11 for the Detroit Pistons.)
In addition to his nine All-Star appearances, Aoki played on a pair of championship runner-up teams (2007-08, 2008-09), where his gutsy play thrived under original Apache coach Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe’s father.
Bryant reacted to the 167-cm Aoki’s retirement in a Tuesday morning interview with The Japan Times.
“Cohey was the best Japanese player that I have coached,” Bryant said. “For me, he was the best Japanese player in its history.
“If he had the chance to play on the national team, he would have put Japan on the basketball worldwide map.
“Sure we know (Yuta) Tabuse had some NBA training camps (and games) with the Phoenix (Suns). I wish Cohey would have had that chance.
“When he played for me, I trusted him with ball in big moments. At the foul line I would bet my life he will make it.”
In a Facebook post, Bryant added these words: “I will never forget you. Thank you for the great years. You will be my friend forever and one day.”
For more than a decade, Aoki defied conventional wisdom regarding what a diminutive player could accomplish. Instead, he made dozens of memorable buzzer-beating shots, threaded the needle on countless passes through tiny slivers of space and was always a threat to make a timely steal to give his team a spark.
And he was nearly automatic at the free-throw line, making about 90 percent of his shots. He won six free-throw shooting titles in those 11 seasons, including an astonishing 94.5 percent (103 of 109) in his final season.
Above all, Aoki, who demonstrated a genuine love for the game, brought joy to basketball fans and set a standard of excellence in the ever-changing hoop landscape in Japan for more than a decade.
In recent days, former teammates praised Aoki’s impact on the game that went far beyond the consistent statistics — he averaged 10 or more points in eight seasons, including a career-best 15.8 for the Apache in 2007-08 — that he posted.
John “Helicopter” Humphrey, who played alongside Aoki from 2005-09 with the Apache and the second half of the 2014-15 season with the Rizing, described him as a “perfect teammate.”
“Cohey changed the game for Japanese players,” Humphrey said. “From day one I knew he was special. His IQ for the game was way ahead of the others. His ballhandling and shooting were the best I’ve seen and all the other Japanese players were scared of him, but he wasn’t scared of no one, not even Americans.
“Once Jelly told him to attack and don’t worry about just Japanese customs, as in holding back against older players, a legend was born,” Humphrey added. “(For Aoki), Killer Bee is a perfect name because he was killing people. Jelly was the perfect coach for him because he always let us play our game. At that time Japanese coaches were more X’s and O’s, like robots, but Coach Bryant always let us play basketball but under control.”
Aoki also had a knack for making highlight-reel plays. In Humphrey’s recollection from a game against the Saitama Broncos, “He drove through the lane and I said ‘trailer,’ and he throws it off the backboard in the middle of traffic. I catch it and dunk. He just smiled and ran downcourt. He would throw lobs from halfcourt.”
Jo Kurino, the top overall pick in the 2005 bj-league draft and for a brief time Aoki’s teammate two years later, saw Aoki’s impact for more than a decade.
“Cohey has a very special place in Japanese basketball history,” Kurino who now plays for Shimane, told The Japan Times. “He wasn’t drafted but he emerged as one of the first stars for the bj-league. Not a lot of people talk about it but he also was a pioneer for Japanese street basketball with the Far East Ballers.
“The things he could do at his size were amazing and he served as a prime example of what you can accomplish no matter what size you are.”
Asked what made Aoki a special player, Kurino offered this insight: “His ability to dribble, create space and score at will. He also had a knack of knowing ‘when’ to score. As for his free-throw shooting, it was automatic.”
Kurino added: “He was soft-spoken yet competitive. He was really stoic about his free-throw shooting. He was easy going yet walked his own path where he could fit in, even though he didn’t care to fit in.”
Longtime NBA coach Bob Hill, who served as the Apache’s final bench boss for their 2010-11 season that was cut short by the Great East Japan Earthquake, said it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to be Aoki’s mentor.
“I have had the opportunity to coach many, many great players throughout my career and I have to put Cohey on my list,” Hill told The Japan Times. “He was first and foremost a total professional at all times. He was always early and he always stayed late. His teammates loved him, both the Japanese players and the imports. His practice habits were perfect and his preparation for games was like any coach would want.
“Cohey was a 5-foot-5 inch shooting guard. Unheard of for sure. His instincts to play basketball were on display everyday in practice and every game. He was a great player in the bj-league and we were all fortunate to have him on our roster.”
Hill also recalled Aoki’s uncanny ability to bring laughter to his teammates.
“Cohey also had a great sense of humor and entertained all of us on many occasions,” Hill said. “He could create this look on his face that we all looked forward to seeing. He never took a picture without that look on his face.
“At the end of the day we all learned to love Cohey for everything he stood for on and off the court. I will never forget my time with him and I wish him all the luck in his future endeavors.”
Retired guard Jumpei Nakama, who suited up for the Apache from 2005-11, revealed that he and Aoki shared a special bond as teammates.
“Back in 2011, Cohey and I had lost our beloved team after the earthquake,” Nakama said.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to play on the same team again but I am truly grateful that we are still close, even though we live far apart.
“I miss those days when we always talked on the phone more than an hour after each game.”
Nakama, who retired in 2014, supports Aoki’s decision to step away from the game as a pro player.
“Some people might say it is too early for him to retire, but you only know when you should retire and I believe now is the best time for him,” Nakama stated. “I just want to say congratulations on your great career and wish you all the best. Welcome to a new life.”
Humphrey, who’s now coaching the American Basketball Association’s expansion RDC Vulcans in North Carolina, observed that Aoki thrived despite the pressure of being one of the bj-league’s original stars.
“He had young players coming up wanted to be like him, he had young players challenging him . . . and he still went out and destroyed them and let them know that they weren’t ready yet,” Humphrey said. “But he was the standard that all young Japanese players wanted to be like or better than. That’s amazing.
“I always wanted to bring him back to United States so I can see him destroy these players who think they can play. Again my little bro had a great career and it was an honor to play at the beginning and at the end with him, now we both are retired, old with bad backs. . .
“He will always be a legend in Japan basketball history. There will be stories told about him when he’s 40, 50 years old.”
Casey Hill, Bob’s son, began his pro coaching career with the Apache in 2010 and had the opportunity to see Aoki’s professionalism on a daily basis.
“As a young man embarking on his first experience in coaching professional basketball, having Cohey on our team was something special,” Casey Hill, head coach of the NBA Development League’s Santa Cruz Warriors, wrote in an email to The Japan Times.
“When we first learned that we would be coming to Japan to coach a team, Cohey was one of the first names that we were made aware of. The respect with which people spoke of Cohey was amazingly impressive. Meeting him and seeing him play in our first practices as a team was even more impressive.
“Coming from the American culture of basketball, which is all ‘confidence and bravado,’ it was a real breath of fresh air seeing such an established and accomplished Japanese basketball player conduct himself like any other player you might encounter on the professional level of our sport. He was humble and appreciative of coaching. Watching him accept the coaching of my father was really special.
“He had such an awesome respect for the environment he found himself in … but he also approached it with a calm and controlled confidence that really seemed to empower the rest of the Japanese players on our team. Just his presence and confident respect for my father’s experience and knowledge of the game allowed the rest of his countrymen to approach our practices and culture with the same amount of calm and comfort.”
What is Aoki’s legacy?
“I think in every true basketball culture you will find trailblazers who set a tone for how basketball is interpreted within that specific corner of the world,” the younger Hill commented. “Cohey is one of those individuals. He really was the Steph Curry of Japanese basketball, he would make plays on the basketball court that would amaze and invigorate fans.
“More importantly, he was able to inspire a younger generation of basketball players who identified with an individual in a world dominated by large human beings. As a smaller player, he was forced to be efficient in his approach to the game and that was exactly what he was — and it didn’t come from just his talent.
“Cohey has a work ethic that rivals any other superstar you may find in the sport of basketball. He was always willing to work, always willing to push his teammates to maximize their own potential as players.”
The last word, part one: “He’s one of the players that would be on the Mount Rushmore of the bj-league.” — Kurino on Aoki.
The last word, part two: “I am sad to hear of Cohey’s retirement because of the impact he had on the growth of our great sport in the country of Japan. He was an inspiration to me as a coach in many ways, some unexpected but truly appreciated. I feel blessed to have been able to have had my first professional basketball coaching experience in Japan with a player like Cohey. Observing the respect that he and his teammates had for our sport was such an amazing kick-start for my career as a coach, I am always appreciative of him and the example he was able to set for me and the thousands of basketball disciples who were able to witness his amazing talent.” — Casey Hill on Aoki.