KAWASAKI - A little before 10 p.m., Kawasaki Brave Thunders staff members were finally able to empty Todoroki Arena, removing everything they’d used to host what would likely be their final home contest of the season.
They will be back there next year. But the circumstances won’t be the same.
Last December, the Brave Thunders made the striking announcement that they will transfer ownership from Toshiba Corporation, which has owned the club for the last 68 years, to DeNA Co. Ltd. after the 2017-18 campaign.
“It hasn’t really sunk in that this is the last game yet,” one long-time Brave Thunders official said ahead of Saturday’s final regular-season home game, which drew a sellout crowd of 4,456 (Kawasaki defeated Kyoto 77-73).
“But I know that this is the last time that we will work together with these members. I mean, it won’t be exactly the same next year.”
The Brave Thunders have collected four league championship titles and are considered to be one of the better teams in the B. League today. But looking back at the 68-year history of the club, it has taken a unique route to get there.
The team was formed in 1950 for Toshiba employees who wanted to play basketball simply for fun (they even practiced outside).
But as the Toshiba team (it did not have a nickname at that time) evolved and joined an industrial league, the desire to win grew stronger.
Tomosuke Sato, a former chief director of the club between 1976 and 1982, recalled that the team was struggling to reach the top division of the men’s premier industrial league, so it began to seriously recruit better players by visiting competitive universities under his initiative.
“We began pouring more energy into the basketball team because if we could make the team more competitive, we thought we would be able to raise the morale of the (Toshiba) employees,” said Sato, who later became a managing director for the company and currently serves as a honorary consultant for the Kawasaki Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
But Toshiba still needed something extra to break through. So Sato and the club looked overseas for the first time. The player who caught their attention was American Fred Cowan, who came to Japan to play in an international tournament as a student-athlete for the University of Kentucky.
Having been told that Cowan was interested in playing in Japan, Sato flew over to Sturgis, Kentucky, by himself, and successfully persuaded the player sign with the club in 1981.
Cowan was actually drafted by the Houston Rockets after he signed with Toshiba. Sato thought that there was no way the American big man would play for the Japanese team, but he opted to compete for Toshiba.
“He said he wasn’t really planning to play pro basketball and wanted to do computer programming,” the 85-year-old Sato said, explaining why Cowan chose to play for a Japanese team which is owned by a global electronics company.
With the acquisition of Cowan, who would eventually win multiple scoring titles and made the all-league team twice in Japan, the Toshiba team began a new chapter.
Despite playing in the second division, Toshiba finished as runner-up in the 1982 All-Japan Championship (Emperor’s Cup) before it got promoted to the first division for the first time ever the next season. The team earned the nickname Red Thunders, which then became the current Brave Thunders.
In the 1999-2000 season, Toshiba claimed its first league championship and also grabbed the All-Japan title. From that point on, the Brave Thunders have been part of an elite group in Japanese basketball, winning three more league titles and two more Emperor’s Cups, playing in the Japan Basketball League and National Basketball League (predecessors of the B. League).
Last year, the Brave Thunders finished runner-up in the inaugural season of the B. League — a true professional hoop circuit — and the name and presence of the team became more widely known by the public.
But despite success on the court, Toshiba decided to part with the team, which was one of the few Toshiba-owned sports teams to survive over the last couple of decades.
Toshiba used to run other sports teams, such as a women’s basketball team, women’s volleyball and swimming teams, a men’s soccer team and tennis teams.
Having suffered a financial slump and been embroiled in a major accounting scandal in recent years, Toshiba has now made the tough decision to let go the Brave Thunders, who are now a professional team unlike the rugby and baseball clubs of the semi-pro industrial leagues.
Sato said that Toshiba employees have grown an attachment to the Brave Thunders, whose players used to work like regular workers in the morning and then go to practices in the afternoon before the professional era began (when they switched their team name to the Kawasaki Brave Thunders).
“I’ll miss the team,” Sato said in a melancholy tone. “Personally, I wish they had stayed. They don’t have to be competitive. I wish they had stayed with Toshiba, where the team was born. They’ve got more fans lately. So I wish they had stayed with Toshiba to keep up the morale of the employees.”
Another club official could not hide his bitterness.
“It’s a little disappointing,” the person said. “I’m not fully convinced by this. I’d be convinced if both the rugby and baseball teams also go, though.”
Center Nick Fazekas, the reigning B. League MVP who has lifted the Brave Thunders to an even higher level since his arrival in 2012, said that Toshiba has been “an A-plus organization,” and treated him very well. He added that he is “sad” to see that the team will no longer be run by the company.
“(I’m) happy that DeNA is going to take over, but I don’t have bad things (to say) about Toshiba,” said Fazekas, who obtained Japanese citizenship last week. “Really, it’s just kind of sad that the whole thing happened in the way it did.”
Players from the Toshiba Brave Lupus rugby team came to watch Saturday’s game. The Toshiba Brave Areus baseball squad also visited Todoroki the week before.
Brave Thunders star shooting guard Naoto Tsuji said that he felt like the basketball team was of the same Toshiba sports family with the rugby and baseball teams and was “honored” to be part of it.
“We would like to repay the company and those who have supported us for all the things they did for us,” Tsuji said. “We are getting into the championship (postseason) with that in mind.”
Kawasaki has posted a 39-18 record with three more games left to play in the regular season through last weekend’s games. It currently occupies the first of the two wild-card spots and would take on the Chiba Jets Funabashi away in the first round if the playoffs were to start today.