Journey for Japan’s hoop team to end with game for 7th place

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Japan men’s national basketball team’s bizarre, unprecedented journey at the Asian Games is nearly — and finally — coming to an end.

The Akatsuki Five, who lost four players as a result of a scandal earlier in the tournament, will play with eight men for one last time when they take on host Indonesia in the seventh-place match on Friday.

The four players — Yuya Nagayoshi of the Kyoto Hannaryz, Takuya Hashimoto of the Osaka Evessa, Takuma Sato of the Shiga Lakestars and Keita Imamura of the Niigata Albirex BB — were kicked out by the Japan Olympic Committee for buying sex in the entertainment district of Jakarta on Aug. 16.

On Wednesday, the Japan Basketball Association announced that the four, who were immediately sent home when the incident came to light, had been banned from JBA-sanctioned games for one year. The ruling means that the four will miss the upcoming B. League season as well as participation on national team squads.

Japan was eliminated from the tournament on Monday with a 93-67 loss to Iran in the quarterfinals at Gelora Bung Karno Sports Complex.

Herman Mandole, who has acted as an interim head coach for the “B” squad at the Asian Games, mostly avoided discussion of the off-court incident after the contest.

Julio Lamas, who is the bench boss for Japan, left the team and went back to Japan to take care of the ongoing training camp for the provisional “A” national team.

“It’s already been one week since the thing away from the court happened,” Mandole said while also acknowledging the difficulties that had arisen such as the inability to practice five-on-five ball. “But we are not going to use it as an excuse.”

Tenketsu Harimoto, a veteran forward who captured a Japan collegiate national championship with Nagayoshi at Aoyama Gakuin University, admitted that the national team members had not imagined the struggle they would face in the games.

“No one expected that this tournament would be as tough as it has been,” said the 26-year-old, who plays for the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins. “We were caught off guard (by the incident). But we had to do the best we could possibly do with the remaining players.”

Sharpshooter Naoto Tsuji, who usually suits up for the Kawasaki Brave Thunders, said that while he had not been able to watch the news on television, he was shocked to see the extent to which the incident was reported back in Japan.

“If I said there wasn’t, I’d be lying,” Tsuji said when asked if the incident had cast any negative influence. “Of course it has affected us. It has a lot to do with the shortage of the players. But we have still been able to play games, and a lot of Japanese fans and locals have come to our games to cheer for us, so we’ve been really thankful.

“That said, basketball is something we have to do our best and we don’t want it to be said that we are playing badly because of those four guys.”

JBA technical director Tomoya Higashino, who was one of the association officials sent to Jakarta to oversee the team after the incident, admitted its an unforgettable situation.

“We will never forget this, to be honest with you,” Higashino said. “They’ve done such a big thing. And that’s why we have to do what we can do the best and work harder.”

While Higashino joined a number of JBA officials in condemning the incident, he also insisted that the team could move forward by treating the crisis as a learning experience.

“I competed at the Asian Games four years ago (in Incheon, South Korea), too,” Harimoto said. “I think that how well we as players can perform under such big pressure will be key for us to compete on the global stage.”