SAPPORO – There is probably nobody else in Japan who devotes themselves to basketball as much as Takehiko Orimo, who, at age 47, is still a competitive player and also serves as president of the Levanga Hokkaido.
In fact, he has recently taken on another role, as he was appointed as a board member for the B. League.
“I don’t really have enough time, it’s a tough schedule,” Orimo told The Japan Times in an exclusive interview earlier this month.
The interview was conducted after a Levanga practice in the evening. Orimo said he had attended a board meeting in Tokyo the previous day and came back to Sapporo later the same day, before appearing in a local TV program at 7 a.m. on the day of the interview.
Orimo has had to endure ups and downs — well, downs mostly — since arriving in Hokkaido in 2007. After playing for 14 seasons for corporate powerhouse Toyota Alvark (now called the Alvark Tokyo), he signed with the Rera Kamuy Hokkaido, the Levanga’s predecessor.
But the club’s management company was forced to disband due to financial mismanagement and a new team took over to form the Levanga with Orimo as its chief in the 2011-12 season of the JBL, which later became the NBL and eventually merged with the bj-league to establish the B. League.
Orimo’s problems started from that point on. The club has struggled financially and as president, Orimo has had to even sacrifice his own private properties to keep running the team and pay the players.
Orimo says the first six years after he became the Levanga president were “the roughest time of my life” and he couldn’t see any “ray of hope.”
The Levanga have gradually started to get on track since the foundation of the B. League, yet cannot afford to sit back and relax. The club is in a state of insolvency (reportedly to the tune of ¥200 million) and will lose its license to play in the top division if it doesn’t come up with a solution by next spring.
So why does Orimo want to continue?
He says it is because Hokkaido and the fans there tell him they need him, which had never happened in his life before he got there.
Orimo believes he was arrogant when he was younger. He often says publicly that he only cared about his own stats and wasn’t a fan-friendly player at all back in those days.
But now, Orimo is living the second chapter of life. He is a completely different person since leaving the automaker-owned Alvark for the professional Levanga, where basketball is the main operation and has to draw in fans and sponsors.
“The fans tell me things like, ‘Thank you very much for being in Hokkaido.’ ‘We need Orimo-san.’ ‘This can’t be done without you,’ ” the Saitama Prefecture native said.
Orimo now feels Hokkaido is his home and “will stay here” even after he is done as a player.
When he hits the court, Orimo wants to be treated as just another player, regardless of his age and reputation. But as club president, he takes full advantage of his legendary status.
“When I go out to visit (companies and sponsors), a lot of them say, ‘We only recognize Mr. Orimo,’ ” Orimo said. “With those people, I think it’s effective to use my name and by me going out, so many different people pay attention (to our club).”
The 2017-18 B. League campaign, which tipped off a few weeks ago, is the 11th season in Hokkaido for the sharpshooting guard. But he said it feels like he has played there longer than he did with Toyota in Tokyo.
“I had been part of championship-winning teams at Toyota,” Orimo said. “But I have been through a totally different experience since I came here.”
Orimo has joked that he has missed his time to retire as a player.
But why would he quit right away? The Levanga have made a good start to the season, posting a 4-2 record in the tough, reshuffled East Division. Orimo has averaged 10.2 points (making 36.8 percent on his signature 3-point shooting) this season, and was the third-best scorer on the team behind center/forward Marc Trasolini and forward Gregory Whittington.
Orimo did not imagine he would be playing this long. When he joined Toyota out of Nihon University, he had teammates who were around 30 years old and he wondered why they were still playing at that age.
But now, he is the subject of other people’s whispers: “Why is he still playing?”
During his career, which spans a quarter-century, the 190-cm Orimo has amassed some notable achievements.
Last year, he became the first Japanese player to reach 9,000 points in the history of the men’s top league.
Takuya Kita, the 45-year-old head coach for the Kawasaki Brave Thunders, is a former top player who competed against Orimo back in the day. Playing at the same position, Kita said he was always in awe of Orimo’s incredible scoring and shooting talent.
“In his heyday, he would score 30 points every game,” Kita said last season. “I just respect that he’s still competing at his age, and I’m impressed that he can run up and down the court as much as he does. It must be very hard working as the president as well, but I’m interested to see how much longer he can do it.”
Last season marked a historic year for Japanese basketball with the foundation of the B. League.
Many thought the first year was a success, drawing more spectators to the arenas and gaining publicity in the media.
But Orimo said that the new league “has just started” and there is still a long way to go before it becomes a premier professional sports circuit.
“We’ve got to make it one Japanese citizens thoroughly recognize, because there are tons of people who don’t know it,” Orimo said. “There are people who know soccer, there are people who know the (Yomiuri) Giants. But do you think that many know the (2016-17 champion) Tochigi Brex? I don’t think so.
“But that’s the point. We’ve got to make it a presence that everybody recognizes going forward.”
Orimo thinks each club must work harder to advertise its own team in its own region and draw more fans to games.
He also believes the men’s national team needs to become more competitive internationally, and have a mid-term and long-term vision to develop players.
Orimo is not a man to balk at saying what he honestly thinks. As a matter of a fact, he doesn’t think everything going on around Japanese basketball right now is leading the sport in the right direction.
So as a new board member for the league, he intends to keep giving his honest opinions.
“You’ve got to say things that not everybody wants to hear,” Orimo said. “But it doesn’t bother me. I will say what I have to say.”
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