KUMAMOTO - Sometimes, the combined efforts of government officials, volunteers, local residents and sports leagues team up to produce a certifiable winner.
Such was the case with the second annual B. League All-Star Game on Jan. 15 at Kumamoto Prefectural Gymnasium. All in all, the weekend was a big slam dunk, a smashing success.
And the game was, literally, the icing on the cake for the weekend’s festivities.
The two teams, B. Black and B. White, had already participated in league-organized events, referred to as B. Hope activities, that mattered much more than the Sunday afternoon’s high-scoring, run-and-gun affair.
From what I saw and heard over a whirlwind weekend, a Japan Basketball Players Association tweet truly captured the drama of the B. Black’s Jan. 14 visit to Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture, the epicenter of two powerful earthquakes in April 2016. The joint quakes, on April 14 and 16, killed more than 200 people, injured thousands more and damaged more than 190,000 buildings, according to published reports.
With JBPA chairman Joji Takeuchi of the Alvark Tokyo and vice chairman Shintaro Kobayashi of the Kumamoto Volters (a central figure in the ASG drama) on hand visiting an area with temporary housing — a reality for thousands throughout the prefecture — joy became a shared emotion for players and youngsters.
“The children were shining eyes on the adventurous players,” was the way the JBPA tweet described the scene.
Nobody disputed that description.
In addition to basketball drills and dancing and laughter, players joined about 40 elementary school students in Mashiki to paint playground benches.
Tochigi Brex floor leader Yuta Tabuse echoed the sentiments of all the players this columnist spoke to about the events in Mashiki and Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture, where B. White held instructional clinics for local youth on Jan. 13 and also took part in other games, dancing and art work.
“I had a good time with the children and I got cheerful for the game,” the former NBA guard told reporters.
One 6-year-old participant’s perspective included these comments: “After about two years since the earthquake, I am desperately working toward basketball in a positive fashion.”
With a few weeks to think about the overall importance of the game and the related activities in Kumamoto, this much is crystal clear: The B. League, guided by chairman Masaaki Okawa, made the best choice by selecting the Kyushu city for the second annual All-Star Game.
It provided much-needed positive publicity for the region, and was boosted by dozens of media to chronicle the events. Fans arrived from all over the country to buy local souvenirs and taste the local cuisine.
It was a stark contrast to news that has dominated in the region for months.
After all, as reported by Kyodo in June 2016: “Evacuees in the town of Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture, began moving into temporary housing units Tuesday, two months after two major earthquakes forced them from their homes. More than 2,000 residents have been seeking shelter in Mashiki, one of the Kumamoto communities hit hardest by the magnitude-6.5 and magnitude-7.3 quakes of April 14 and 16.”
In Mashiki, The Japan Times’ Daisuke Kikuchi reported in April 2017, “3,501 buildings were completely destroyed.”
The origin of B. Hope
In short, B. Hope’s overall emphasis, as summed up in its slogan, focuses on three things: peace, planet and people.
The B. Hope story really began to gain attention in February 2017, when events tied to the inaugural All-Star Game at Yoyogi National Gymnasium demonstrated this aspect of the league’s societal objectives. Beforehand, the league reached out to parents whose offspring were battling incurable childhood diseases and invited the families to attend the game.
“The B. League thought that the power of sports could be utilized while attention was paid to the importance of respite care for such families,” the league stated in a news release. The goal was to give the families a chance to have a “pursuit of entertainment” within an “arena of dreams.”
For the B. League, the reality of the emotional trauma and physical damage caused by the aforementioned earthquakes sparked the initiative to use the B. Hope outreach as a continuous project. By doing so, it gave the Kumamoto-related events an optimistic, upbeat vibe.
In June 2017, the league organized an effort to get the nation involved in supporting B. Hope in Kyushu. Crowd funding was the name of the game, and more than 320 people committed money to help raise about ¥6.27 million to assist reconstruction efforts.
Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima, who has held his post since 2008, delivered an emotional speech before the All-Star Game’s opening tipoff. With cameras from national television and a live internet stream capturing the scene, Kabashima was in his element explaining how big a deal this day was for the city and the prefecture.
Speaking at Kumamoto Prefectural Gymnasium, the governor gave a sincere thank you to Okawa on behalf of the entire prefecture for bringing the midseason showcase game to Kyushu
“There have been some difficult times,” Kabashima said candidly, “but we have forged ahead.”
He spoke of a feeling of national unity that was the result of helping Kumamoto recover from the earthquake, an emotion that he admitted made him “very glad.” There was a real sense of unity, Kabashima declared.
Naturally, the MVP was the center of attention after the game as he gave his heartfelt message to fans from across the country, not only for their support of his game but also for helping with the B. Hope project.
A public viewing center for the All-Star Game was erected near downtown by a busy bus terminal. Walking past the center on Saturday night, one noticed a bright, shiny locale. It looked immaculate but also was a glistening promotional vehicle for the league in its infancy. Again, a touch of class by the organizers to set this up; after all, not everyone could get a ticket. But the public viewing made the event bigger and better for the city on its special day.
Around the town
Conversing with the manager of a bustling local watering hole the night before the game, it was immediately clear that Kobayashi’s feats for the Volters resonated throughout the community.
“Here, everyone knows the Volters, and everyone knows Kobayashi-san,” said Chikara Tabata between preparing food and drinks for his customers.
Tabata, a former soccer player, told me that he attended the same junior high school as the 32-year-old Kobayashi. Recalling their younger days, he said that his sempai (elder colleague), by one school year, “was always good at basketball.”
Earlier that evening, I passed through the busy shopping arcade and exchanged greetings with a few locals, asking if they had any recommendations for nearby eateries and souvenir shops. (When I mentioned that I was an English-language journalist visiting Kumamoto for the first time for the All-Star Game, they were visibly excited that the story of their city would reach a global audience. Unanimously, former strangers-turned-acquaintances were eager to see Volters captain Kobayashi represent their team in the big game.)
Boy, did he ever.
On the biggest day of Kobayashi’s career, he shined in the spotlight.
And it was delightful to see his fellow All-Stars defer to him. They repeatedly passed him the ball in his comfort zone, 3-point land, especially in the second quarter. It was an unfolding drama that demonstrated the special role of sports to help uplift and inspire people.
Kobayashi delivered 18 points in about 21 minutes of court time. He nailed six 3-pointers and handed out four assists. He gave high-fives to each of his B. Black teammates as he carried his ¥1 million MVP prize poster near the bench, and he received an unforgettable embrace from fellow All-Star Ira Brown, a B. White MVP candidate who fell short in the fan voting by social media. Like a storybook finish, no other player had a more captive audience in the post-game mixed zone with reporters than Kobayashi, not even Tabuse, the face of Japan basketball in the 21st century.
And now, Kobayashi is a hero for life in Kumamoto. How cool is that?
The league’s decision to award the All-Star Game to Kumamoto signaled a commitment to do two things: 1. Promote the game in distant locales away from Tokyo; 2. Use the event to help build support for the region’s construction, which reminds me of pro sports’ long-term goals in Tohoku after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.
Reliving the experience
About 30 minutes before the All-Star Game tipped off, I conversed with about a dozen fans, including some parents who took their children to B. Hope activities, including in nearby Mashiki and also in Fukuoka.
Eiji Sato, an easygoing 42-year-old from Oita, visited the downtown public viewing complex a day earlier with his two elementary school boys. Sato said it was “exciting” for him and his sons to get high-fives from various players during a meet-and-greet event.
“I enjoyed it very much,” said Sato, adding he was thrilled to get Tabuse’s autograph and shake his hand.
One mother, who requested anonymity, stood near the gym entrance with her three giggling elementary school daughters, all of whom were wearing B. Hope T-shirts that were signed by several players at a gathering of about 160 people two days earlier at Asakura’s Kukiyomi Elementary School (where temporary buildings are set up after major damaged caused by rainstorms.)
“It was special for the children,” she said softly.
The strong bond developed between local residents and B. League players was genuine. Exhibit A was the countless smiles that filled the city because of All-Star weekend and the B. Hope events. Exhibit B was the plethora of positive words echoed again and again by locals, when they were asked what they thought about the game being held in their hometown.
“It’s wonderful that the game has come to Kumamoto,” were words I heard on the train en route to the game.
Indeed the B. League helped leave a positive imprint on the region, and it’s not just about one weekend but about investing in the youth and introducing them to positive role models. Kumamon, the omnipresent popular bear mascot, has become a symbol of the prefecture within the past 10 years, and Kumamoto Castle may represent yesteryear’s culture. Both, though, are undeniably linked to the fierce pride Kumamoto residents feel for their home.
Starring for the Kumamoto Volters during the 2016-17 season, power forward Reggie Warren developed a genuine fondness for the city and the people who called it home.
“I loved the time I spent there and the smiles I help put on people’s faces,” Warren, who now plays for the Kagawa Five Arrows, said recently.
“I came up with the slogan for the team last year that was my idea: ‘One soul for Kumamoto,’ “he went on, “and that’s exactly what I gave that city and that basketball team . . . both on and off the court, and the city showed their appreciation as I traveled throughout the city.”
Months before the B. League formally announced that Kumamoto would host its second All-Star Game, Warren recognized that pro basketball played a significant role in giving local residents some enjoyment during the often-difficult recovery from the 2016 earthquakes.
“I know we touched a lot of people with our play last season and that’s something I am very proud of,” Warren commented. “The fans showed me a lot of love when I returned down there last month and I was happy to see them smiling.
“I enjoyed going to the different gymnasiums that were affected by the earthquake, helping them putting things back together was my pleasure,” the rebounding maestro said. “Also, we took the time to go read to the kids at the high school and just communicating with them about the difference between living here vs. America was awesome.”
During his unforgettable season with the Volters, Warren often observed how Kobayashi was a beloved figure in his hometown and how the team floor general was a rising leader in the community, too.
According to Warren, Kobayashi was a key factor in the success the team had — and continues to have — in reaching out to the community.
Many memories are permanently etched in Warren’s mind, including this one:
“I remember seeing the happiness and the pride on the people’s faces going through the city.”
Asked to sum up his general impressions of Kobayashi’s involvement in civic and community events and how the captain’s embraced by the public, Warren dished out this insight: “He is a great guy, a very good teammate and he represents the city of Kumamoto very well. His mother raised him the right way and she is one of the sweetest ladies I have met out here in Japan. He does a lot for that community and they treat him with the upmost respect and he deserves it.”
Big man Robert Sacre of the Sunrockers Shibuya declared that the B. Hope events staged during All-Star weekend were wonderful.
How significant was it to hold these events to demonstrate that the league is involved in communities throughout Japan? I asked.
“I think it was extremely important and I thought that the league did a great job getting out to the community,” Sacre told Hoop Scoop.
“These people are our fans. They come out every night and day and support us, and we just have to give back in any which way you can,” the former Los Angeles Lakers center added after posting a double-double in the All-Star Game.
Looking ahead to future community projects involving the B. League, Sacre said “it can only get better.”
“The thing that I love about Japan is that they all work together for one big cause,” he stated. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen that anywhere else, where they all work to benefit each other as a group. I just give them a lot of props.”
I asked the Gonzaga University product what touched his heart the day after the B. Hope project events.
Then I said, “What was humbling about yesterday’s experience as an athlete who can make a comfortable living?”
He answered by saying “I’m very blessed to be in the situation that I’m in and anything can happen to anybody, so you just have to be fortunate just to be able to smile each and every day, and if you can make someone else smile, that’s the most important thing.
“It was great to be a part of something like that where you can make kids smile and just able to be a part of something so awesome like that. I am very fortunate to just have fun with the kids and lift their spirits up.”
Sacre high-fived and shook hands with all of the kids he met in Kumamoto.
“And we painted. We just had fun painting on our bench (which was donated along with play equipment for the temporary housing complex). Just taking their minds out of where they are at and just have fun. I know I would want someone to do that with my kids if something were unfortunate (to happen), and someway, somehow, somebody could make my kids happy like that,” said Sacre, the father of three children, ages 4 months, 2 and 6 years old.
While interacting with mothers and fathers who watched their children participate in the various events on Jan. 14, words of gratitude were a big part of what the All-Stars received.
Indeed, it was a heartwarming experience for Sacre and the other players.
“Absolutely, the kids gave us cards,” concurred Sacre, agreeing with my description. “It was really touching and I just know that they are going through things. They lost stuff probably in the earthquake that they probably will never be able to get back, and you’ve just got to make memories.
“Yesterday and today, we were able to make memories for a lot of those kids.”
One cool aspect of the All-Star project was the fact that there was a student paired up with each All-Star player for the game. B. White and B. Black both had students entering the gym with them and sitting near their bench for the game.
This gave the game a more intimate, meaningful interaction for many of the kids who attended the Saturday events, too.
“I’ m just happy to be able to say that I was able to help in any way that I could, and I felt really blessed to be able to do that,” Sacre commented.
Toyama Grouses guard Naoki Uto, whose team will host the 2019 All-Star Game, expressed the viewpoint that the league increased its bond with fans and the nation as a whole by holding the game in Kumamoto.
He pointed out that the league strengthened its kizuna (bond) with local residents, humbly saying “it was strong.”
Looking back at his participation in the B. Hope events, Uto told me that “with the children, I truly enjoyed the interaction.”
A road to recovery
Recovery from a natural disaster is never an overnight task. It takes months, years, often decades to rebuild. Kumamoto symbolizes those challenges, and buildings being repaired are visible throughout the city.
But the region’s sports leaders, including Kobayashi, and the governor are determined to proceed with the work that needs to be done.
From observing Kumamoto for a few days during my recent visit, it’s clear that the city and prefecture’s residents take great pride in this beautiful region of Japan. They also are proud to showcase its character to visitors from near and far. Downtown was jam-packed with visitors wherever I went, but good customer service was clearly the No. 1 objective.
Kumamoto continues to occupy an important place for regional, national and international sports.
✹The Volters (23-9 through Sunday) are one of B. League’s most exciting, successful second-division teams.
✹The Asia League Ice Hockey’s Japan Cup staged contests in Kumamoto in mid-January.
✹Next year, Kumamoto Prefectural Athletic Stadium is scheduled to host Rugby World Cup matches. After the rugby tournament ends, the 24-nation Women’s World Handball Championship is set to be held in Kumamoto from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, 2019.