Basketball

Former Japan stars praise growth

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Former Japan men’s basketball players Takehiko Orimo and Kei Igarashi are grateful the team’s current iteration has raised its level in order to compete on the global level.

Orimo, who at 49 years old continues to play for the B. League’s Levanga Hokkaido, played for Japan at the 1998 and 2006 world championships, while Igarashi was also on the ’06 squad. Both are thrilled for their nation’s team, which will compete at the upcoming FIBA World Cup in China.

Orimo, who with his exceptional shooting skills is one of the best scorers the country has ever produced, noted that in his day, Japanese players were focused on winning in the semiprofessional Japan Basketball League as well as in Asia — but not so much on the global stage.

“We didn’t have anyone who knew how to play on that stage,” the shooting guard said on Tuesday following the B. League Tipoff Conference in Tokyo. “That’s why we couldn’t play how we wanted to.”

Both Orimo and Igarashi agreed that their national teams did not have players capable of competing at the highest level like today’s squad, which includes Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura and Memphis Grizzlies two-way signing Yuta Watanabe.

“Now they have a pair of NBA players, and we’ve also had others who competed in the (NBA) Summer League,” Igarashi said. “Things are actually happening that used to be unimaginable. And I think now they’re setting the bar higher.”

Orimo said Japan competes at the global standard, playing its bigger players like Hachimura and Watanabe both inside and outside. He added that the two youngsters have a variety of skills in their arsenal, such as dribbling and shooting from outside, which have become strengths for Japan.

“They also have a variety of different guys with different talents,” Orimo said. “It’s fun to watch them, and I can understand why they make their fans excited. I’m thrilled to see that Japan has reached to this point.”

Orimo and Igarashi said they both watched Japan’s recent World Cup warmup games against New Zealand, Argentina, Germany and Tunisia.

Igarashi, a Niigata Albirex BB point guard, noted that his Japan side faced both Germany and New Zealand during the 2006 world championships. Japan fell to Germany 81-70 and the Tall Blacks 60-57 (Japan blew an 18-point lead in that contest) in the first round of that tournament.

“We lost to Germany by 11 points, but personally, the game made me think we had come closer to the (rest of the) world. I was reminded of it when I watched (Saturday’s) game against Germany,” the 39-year-old said. “Japan even posted a win this time. It made me feel like we’re in an era in which the level of Japanese basketball has developed.”

The Akatsuki Five, ranked No. 48 by FIBA, edged the No. 22-ranked Germans 86-83 in a thriller before a crowd of over 18,000 fans at Saitama Super Arena.

Meanwhile, Igarashi hopes the current crop of Japanese players are aware the country’s progress is a result of the efforts by past Japanese greats to develop the domestic game.

“When I was on the national team, I respected the history that the players before us had built,” said Igarashi, who believes Japan has a chance to finish in the top half of its four-nation group, which also includes the United States, Turkey and the Czech Republic, to advance to the second round.

“Without that history, the current national team couldn’t come up with the results it has achieved. That’s what I thought myself back in the day.

“But I don’t mean (for that history) to be a burden for them. I want them to do their best to write a new history.”

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