Basketball / B. League

Akatsuki Five players make quick return to club grind

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Many Japanese basketball fans may have been nursing hangovers after Japan successfully qualified for the FIBA World Cup.

But the players themselves haven’t had much time to cherish their accomplishment.

After a celebratory toast at Narita Airport following the Asian qualifiers, the member’s of Japan’s Akatsuki Five swapped their national team jerseys for the uniforms of their respective club teams to prepare for the weekend’s B. League games.

The Alvark Tokyo tied with the Kawasaki Brave Thunders for the most players dispatched to international duty at three each. When the Alvark played their first game since the international break on Saturday, their three national team representatives — Joji Takeuchi, Daiki Tanaka and Yudai Baba — did not seem to be in top condition.

All three said they were still bothered by the jet lag from their trip to Iran and Qatar for Japan’s final two qualifying games.

But in sports, however hard you compete, sometimes winning can ease physical fatigue.

“There was a lot of traveling, so it’s not that I feel perfectly fine,” Tanaka said after an 86-78 win over the Toyama Grouses, “But we came back having had good results over there, and it made a difference. Had we lost those games, it would’ve been different, but (since we won) I’m not that tired.”

Asked if his lack of fatigue was due to being the youngest player on the squad during the final two windows, Baba agreed and added, jokingly, “Compared with Daiki and Joji, I’m OK.”

The players received a hero’s welcome across Japan, with seven out of Saturday’s nine top-division games drawing full houses.

“It made me think that it makes a whole a lot of difference when you come back with positive results,” Baba said of the mood at Arena Tachikawa Tachihi, which held a jam-packed crowd of 3,002. “I felt high expectations from the fans and their message, ‘We are here to see you guys (national team players).’ Hopefully, I’ll keep working hard so that I can live up to their expectations.”

Meanwhile, the Alvark’s national team players have no intentions of using their sacrifice for the national team as an excuse for their B. League play, knowing they need to regroup in their hunt for another league title.

There are fewer than 20 games left in the regular season before the playoffs kick off in May. The defending champion Alvark currently sit in third place in their division with a 30-12 record.

Takeuchi said he’s put the World Cup joy behind him to concentrate on the Alvark.

“We are a team that has to keep winning to rise in the standings. That’s what our coach (Luka Pavicevic) tells us,” the 34-year-old veteran inside player said. “That’s our mindset.”

Pavicevic, who served as the interim bench boss for the national team before current head coach Julio Lamas arrived in the summer of 2017, said he was “happy” for the national squad. But he added that his team “needs to get back to our goals.”

“We are chasing the championship. No time to feel happy. No time to feel sleepy,” the Serbian said. “It’s time to step up and face our competitors.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5