Tochigi Brex forward Jeff Gibbs’ terrific fourth-quarter performance in the B. League Championship final on Saturday instantly entered this nation’s hoop annals as a special feat.
Gibbs’ 16-point outburst, a clinic in low-post mobility and power moves, over the final 10 minutes helped inspire and lift the Brex past the Kawasaki Brave Thunders for the league’s inaugural title at Yoyogi National Gymnasium. It was excellence on the grand stage.
But it came with a big price. The 36-year-old ruptured his left Achilles tendon late in the game and faces a difficult road back, including physical rehabilitation. No timetable has been given for his return.
Brex fans and players from other teams used social media to offer words of encouragement to Gibbs, who starred at NCAA Division III Otterbein (Ohio) University.
“I wish you will get better soon and come back,” tweeted one Brex supporter. “Many BREX fan love u so much! We are waiting for u!!!”
While big-school stars from the United States and elsewhere have contributed — and thrived — in Japan for decades, the 188-cm Gibbs demonstrated again in the final that his competitiveness and desire to excel are off the charts. Gibbs saved his most dynamic performance (25 points, nine rebounds, two steals and one block in just over 25 minutes) of the season for the title clash.
Conventional wisdom says that Gibbs is undersized to play both power forward and center. But this season — and in past campaigns — he often won the battle on the boards with brute strength and exceptional timing. And he still possessed the big-time scoring ability that was on display in crunch time on Saturday.
Due to the injury, there’s no guarantee that Gibbs will remain an explosive player with deceptive athleticism. But his career has always been defined by hustle and outworking bigger, stronger players. He’s a player who has overcome big odds to still be in the game at age 36.
Brex forward Ryan Rossiter, who witnessed Gibbs’ exploits on a daily basis this season, admitted that his teammate always kept his focus on what was happening on the court. What’s more, Rossiter said the team’s American players never lost sight of their mission to prove themselves, noting they came from smaller, somewhat obscure schools (Rossiter attended Siena College; Tommy Brenton went to Stony Brook University).
“Yes, we often joke about Jeff being D-3 and even Tommy and myself coming from smaller schools compared to a lot of the big-name schools guys in this league have gone to and us having that chip on our shoulder,” Rossiter told The Japan Times.
Looking at what Gibbs accomplished in the title game, the 27-year-old Rossiter marveled at his teammate’s performance.
“Jeff is incredible, he is a freak of an athlete and just an incredibly hard worker in the games,” Rossiter said. “I hope I can be half the player he is when I’m 36.”
In Rossiter’s view, Gibbs is the consummate teammate.
“We have complete trust in one another on the court and know we have one another’s backs, playing with him allows both of us to defend the other team’s best players and we can both do multiple things on offense,” Rossiter said.
Shortly after Tochigi received its championship trophy, star guard Yuta Tabuse, who’s played for the Brex since 2008, reflected on what the growing popularity of the B. League means to him.
“Like in today’s final, there’s been that many people having come out for us and it’s a great feeling to be able play in front of that many fans,” Tabuse said of the 10,144 spectators. “It also showed that the B. League has a lot of potential going forward and we players have got to make it (a stronger) league maximizing its potential.”
This potential, Tabuse said, involves a product that’s “gotten more intense” because of the merger of the NBL and bj-league to create the B. League.
Journey to a title
Rossiter, who won the top-flight rebounding title (13.3) and contributed 12 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists in the playoff finale, express the opinion that there wasn’t a single moment or game that gave the team the belief it had title potential.
“I don’t think there was one moment when it all came together,” Rossiter said on Sunday. “We had championship aspirations from the first day of practice and worked hard towards that goal every day. We definitely had some disappointments during the year, but with a 60-game schedule and back-to-backs every weekend that will happen.
“We never blamed anyone or pointed fingers, we just band together and have one another’s back through everything, especially when going in the fourth quarter down four yesterday. We had already made up 22- and 17-point deficits in the playoffs, which allowed us to be confident and truly believe we would be champions.”
Tochigi coach Tom Wisman never pushed the metaphorical panic button this season. He outlined a team-first agenda and demanded that his players all follow that plan, which they did from start to finish.
During his illustrious coaching career, the 68-year-old Wisman has been a well-known coaching figure in Japan for decades. Success is the key reason.
He led the Brex to the 2009-10 JBL championship. Winning it all again with the Brex after returning to the franchise for a second stint in charge brought the inevitable comparisons.
Was this title more satisfying to him?
“Even though the 2010 championship with the Brex was extremely fulfilling, this one has brought me even more satisfaction because it was so hard-earned,” Wisman told The Japan Times on Wednesday.
“This season was so long and we were challenged by so many good teams. The B. League has been such a tough grind, with 60 games, the Japan Cup (All-Japan Basketball Championship), and then two really tough playoff series wins and a final that took everything we had left as a team to come out as champions.
“The players’ determination, the trust and heart with which they played and their complete refusal to ever give up will stay with me forever. I’m really, really proud of this team.”
Though he was reluctant to highlight the personal accomplishments from his 45-coaching career, Wisman revealed he has won 23 titles across the decades. He broke it down this way: 12 league titles, eight cups and three international tournaments, with 15 of those titles while as a head coach and eight as an associate head coach. The titles have been achieved in Japan, England, Australia and Qatar.
“It has been a good ride with lots of memories and stories along the way,” Wisman said.
The Sunrockers Shibuya, who sent 32-28 and made a late-season push to make the playoffs, have parted ways with bench boss BT Toews after his one season at the helm.
So it’s back to the drawing board for the Sunrockers.
The Shimane Susanoo Magic, who had the top record in the second division (51-9) quickly hired a replacement for Michael Katsuhisa, who guided the club for the past two seasons. His announced departure from Shimane last week shocked many within Japan’s basketball circles.
Yukinori Suzuki was named Shimane’s new coach on Wednesday and will guide the Susanoo Magic in the upcoming season in B1. He led the Kanazawa Samuraiz in the B3 this season after taking the reins for the club as an expansion team in the bj-league before the 2015-16 season. Before coaching Kanazawa, held the same post for the Oita HeatDevils (2011-15) in the bj-league.
The Samuraiz went 44-8 in B3 contests this season under Suzuki.
In the B2, the Earthfriends Tokyo Z announced on Thursday that Taku Saito, who served as the team’s assistant coach from 2014-17, has been promoted to head coach.
Saito, 37, replaces Shuji Ono, who led the Kanto-based squad for the past three seasons.
The well-traveled Ono, 59, guided the Toyota Motors Alvark (2000-05) and Hitachi Sunrockers (2005-13) during past stops in the JBL. He coached at Aichi Gakusen University from 1988-2000.
In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times on Saturday, 2016-17 MVP Nick Fazekas of the Brave Thunders was asked how the success of the B. League this season will set the tone for the future.
“They did a wonderful job. I mean even today the production value (of the final) and everything they do was just tremendous,” Fazekas said. “And I think it was a huge first step for the B. League. This whole season was a huge success. I think obviously going forward there’s probably a couple things they can tinker with as far as playoff format and stuff like that.
“But ultimately, I think it was a success because of all the publicity we got nationally and even worldwide we might be a little more well-known now that there’s the B. League.”
It would have been nice to see American standouts Rossiter and Gibbs along with Wisman on NHK’s high-profile “Sunday Sports” evening program.
Brex players Tabuse and Kosuke Takeuchi and Takatoshi Furukawa, the MVP of the title game, sat together and answered a wide range of questions. They provided good insights about the team and its championship run.
But the program could’ve been better. If NHK had included Rossiter and Gibbs and Wisman, it would’ve given viewers a broader look at the Brex, a more inclusive look at what made the team thrive and come together to produce a title.
Foreign players and coaches are an important investment for the B. League. They are necessary to raise the level of competition and build the foundation for the new league.
This time, NHK missed a golden opportunity to give a nationwide audience a chance to have some of those important voices heard.
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Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.