Legendary star player Takehiko Orimo has always been brutally honest and outspoken about Japanese basketball, and his stance on the Akatsuki Five is no different.
The Japanese men’s national team will face Iran and Qatar on Thursday and Sunday, respectively, with a ticket to the FIBA World Cup on the line.
Japan is currently in third place in its Asian qualifying group, a position good enough for a ticket to the global stage.
The team is in the midst of a complete turnaround, having won its last six games after an 0-4 start to qualifying. Orimo, a 48-year-old shooting guard for the Levanga Hokkaido, said that while the acquisitions of exceptional talents like Nick Fazekas, Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe made it possible, the taste of winning has also given the rest of the players confidence and momentum.
“Even if it wasn’t for Japan, it’s mentally tough for any team when it keeps losing,” Orimo said during a recent event about the national team in Tokyo. “But once Japan started stringing together wins, it made the mood inside the team better. I have nothing but high expectations for them as well.”
He expounded on his views with reporters after the event.
Orimo often mentioned Fazekas, a 210-cm big man, as a key call-up for the national team since Japan hadn’t had such a reliable inside presence who can score and grab rebounds like him in the past.
The 2001-02 Japan Basketball League MVP said Japan had long been centered around its outside players, because of a lack of size, which gave the team fewer options.
“By having a player like (Fazekas), you can expect scoring and rebounding inside,” said Orimo, who also serves as the president of the Levanga. “And it’s given the team much better balance.”
Orimo insisted, however, that the country should not jump to the conclusion Japanese basketball has undergone a drastic change because of the recent results. He said the administrators would need to keep working hard in order to legitimately make Japanese basketball better in a long term.
“The players who are competing now have to focus on nothing but going to the Olympics (for which Japan is likely to at least be assured a spot as the host nation). That’s the mission and responsibility they have been given,” Orimo said. “But it’s undeniable that the team has relied a lot on Fazekas since he joined. So what will they do in the future (without him)? That question will remain.
“In order for them to go to the Olympics, I would like to fully support them and do whatever it takes to help them. But when we look at the development (of the current players) and of younger players, I still believe there are a lot of issues in Japan.”
Orimo himself has played at two world championships, which was later rebranded as the World Cup. In 1998, he helped Japan earn a spot in the tournament for the first time in 31 years.
He said the players were satisfied with just participating in the 1998 tourney, in which Japan finished 14th with a 1-4 record. His most vivid memories, however, are from the 2006 edition, when Japan booked a spot at the host.
The Saitama Prefecture native recalled with a bitter smile that the players had gone through intense, rigorous training under then-head coach Zeljko Pavlicevic ahead of the tournament.
“We got our cell phones taken away. The intention was to shut out what others were saying,” Orimo said. “And we were taken to some obscure mountain to hold a training camp. We were ordered to jog in a ski place or something. It was extremely tough. (The current Japan bench boss Julio) Lamas probably isn’t like that, right?”
He said that 2006 team played a warm-up game against a collegiate all-star squad in Hiroshima, where it competed in the group stage at worlds. Orimo recalled that the national team players weren’t as sharp as they usually were, due to the intense practices, and were routed by their opponents.
But, according to Orimo, the Croatian coach told them there was nothing to worry about because they would reach their physical peak a week later, just in time for the actual tournament.
“And we did hit our peak a week later,” said Orimo, who scored the 10,000th point of his top league career (the most all time by a Japanese player) late last month. “It opened up my eyes and I realized that it was possible to prepare players that way.
“But (Pavlicevic) never had us train longer than two hours (per practice). He never let us do extra shooting or extra weight training. If we did, he would scold us. It was so everything we were doing was under his supervision.”
Japan came close to make it to the final and knockout round. But it blew an 18-point lead at halftime in its fourth group stage contest against New Zealand.