Basketball / B. League | HOOP SCOOP

Josh Peppers and Michael Parker reaping rewards after years of hard work in Japanese hoop scene

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

John Neumann gave the green light to bring American forwards Josh Peppers and Michael Parker to Japan. He had a good reason: He needed good players to make Rizing Fukuoka competitive during the expansion team’s inaugural 2007-08 campaign in the bj-league.

An astute talent evaluator, Neumann’s instincts were spot-on about both players. And really, he should’ve known. Neumann, after all, had been a high school superstar and scoring machine at the University of Mississippi, leading the NCAA in scoring with an astounding 40.1 points per game in 1970-71 before a playing career in the ABA, NBA and overseas that led to an extended global odyssey as a head coach in several countries.

Peppers and Parker helped the Rizing immensely in the team’s early history, and both continue to make important contributions more than a decade later for their respective teams.

On Sunday, Peppers, a University of Central Florida alum, helped guide the Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka to the B. League’s second-division championship. In his third tour of duty with the franchise, Peppers, who played for four other franchises in the bj-league before returning to Fukuoka in 2014, remains a vocal leader and mentor for the team’s younger players. He’s a go-to scorer and a historic symbol of the team’s earliest days.

It’s been an improbable run for the Rizing Zephyr (the Z word was added at the outset of the B. League era before the 2016-17 campaign). They were assigned to the nine-team third division last season, and dominated the competition with a 47-6 record, then earning promotion to B2. This season, they have been one of the best teams in the second division, posting a 47-13 record; Akita, though, was the clear No. 1, winning 54 of 60 regular-season contests.

Host Akita fell to Fukuoka in Sunday’s Game 2 of the final, 82-73. Peppers poured in 19 points as the visitors forced the Game 3, a 10-minute mini-game tiebreaker. That ended with the Rizing Zephyr, guided by first-year bench boss Ryuji Kawai, on top by a 15-12 decision, and now Peppers’ team is on the rise to B1.

For Fukuoka, it’s been an improbable run, from being an afterthought in the third division, to B2 and now to the 18-team top flight.

On Monday, Peppers reflected on the team’s glorious two-year run in a post on Facebook.

“I stayed yet hungry, trusted my teammates, and believed in myself,” Peppers wrote. “Anything’s possible . . . back-to-back chips and an MVP award to top it off. God knows I’m thankful.”

Absolutely, Parker was a signing gem for Neumann. He made his mark at Evergreen State (Washington) College, an NAIA institution and an obscure stop in the U.S. college hoop hierarchy, before becoming a pro player. But he’s a natural athlete. Simply put, the 200-cm Parker can still jump out of the gym. Fueled by an intense passion to win and a determined work ethic, his athleticism, speed, agility and long limbs have all factored in his success over the years. Parker collected five regular-season steals titles and four scoring crowns while in the bj-league and a pair of All-Star MVP accolades, too. He was a go-to star for the Shimane Susanoo Magic, Wakayama Trians and Toyota Alvark before joining the Chiba Jets Funabashi in 2016.

At this stage of Parker’s career, he’s not a high-volume scorer every game. But he gets buckets in transition in a hurry and remains a savvy offensive operator in the low post. He is always hustling and vying for putback opportunities and remains a capable outside jump shooter.

Observing the Jets numerous times over the past two seasons, this much is clear: Parker, now 36, is a perfect fit for coach Atsushi Ono’s system. He makes an impact on offense and defense and is always around the ball, alert and ready to make something happen.

In Chiba’s 74-61 Game 1 win over the Ryukyu Golden Kings on Saturday in the B. League Championship semifinals at Funabashi Arena, Parker scored 22 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, made three steals, blocked a shot and dished out two assists in 31-plus minutes. Parker was very effective on Sunday, too. In Game 2, he scored 16 points, pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds and led all players with four steals. He was in the right place at the right time most of time in the Jets’ 72-64 victory, which clinched a spot for Chiba in the championship final this Saturday against the Alvark Tokyo at Yokohama Arena.

Indeed, the just-cited statistics look impressive on paper. Parker’s impact, though, went far beyond the standard box score numbers.

In the fourth quarter on Sunday, a game that neither team led by more than four points entering the last stanza, the Jets had three prominent players — Parker, starting center Gavin Edwards and forward Leo Lyons — with four fouls apiece.

For some teams, it might appear to be time to panic or greatly alter their defensive scheme. The Jets stuck with their core players, and Parker made his voice heard while speaking to his teammates in crunch time.

“Play it straight up,” Parker spoke out, telling his foul-plagued teammates not to focus on double-teaming Ryukyu players, which could risk picking up a fifth foul and getting booted from the game.

Explaining the Chiba strategy later while speaking to reporters, Parker, who is still chasing his first regular-season league championship in Japan, said he told his teammates he would assume greater defensive responsibility around the basket, especially in situations where a help-side defender might rotate to offer assistance to a teammate.

“Don’t help me on the blocks,” Parker related. He said he remembered thinking, “I don’t want them to get a foul.”

They didn’t. All three men finished with four fouls and double-digit scoring totals, Lyons getting 16 and Edwards 12. Parker stayed focus on defense and tenacious around the baskets, grabbing five rebounds (four defensive) in the final quarter.

Last year’s disappointing first-round exit from the playoffs benefited Chiba this season, according to Parker.

“We always use last year as a learning experience,” Parker said.

Yuki Togashi and Ryumo Ono, the most recognizable faces of the franchise (both of whom had key performances in Sunday’s series finale — eight points and eight assists for Togashi, nine points and six assists for Ono), Aki Chambers, Kosuke Ishii and Fumio Nishimura, among others, have all found their niche on this team.

Like Peppers, Parker doesn’t demand the spotlight at this stage of his career. But both players clearly enjoy seeing their teammates shine and elevate their games.

But once more think back to 2007. Again: Neumann got it right about Peppers and Parker. They remain keys to success for their respective teams.