Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Akita, Shimane are model local teams

by Ed Odeven

Japan’s pro basketball landscape completely changed during the bj-league’s 11 seasons of operations. From six franchises in its inaugural 2005-06 season to 24 in the final year, new teams sprouted up every year throughout the nation.

And so it’s worth noting that the 2019-20 campaign marks the 10th season of existence for a pair of important B. League clubs, the Akita Northern Happinets and Shimane Susanoo Magic. Established as expansion franchises, they entered the now-disbanded bj-league during the 2010-11 season along with the now-defunct Miyazaki Shining Suns.

Akita and Shimane exemplified the local franchise model that was a progressive break from the past, when corporate teams during the JBL era staged games in dozens of gyms each season. These teams had big booster clubs from the get-go, the vital support of local businesses as sponsors, as well as media interest.

For example, the Happinets’ first-ever home game, on Oct. 16, 2010, against the Sendai 89ers at Akita Prefectural Gymnasium, was televised live by NHK in all six Tohoku prefectures. And six TV stations had cameras inside the post-game interview room, too.

It was a sign of the sport’s potential to reach the masses.

Akita has 67,000-plus Twitter followers and a rabid, loyal fan base. Case in point: When the franchise made back-to-back appearances in the bj-league’s title game at Ariake Colosseum in 2014 and 2015 under head coaches Kazuo Nakamura and Makoto Hasegawa, respectively, the cavernous arena showcased a sea of pink T-shirts. And the franchise’s popular mascot, Bicky, is always one of the most photographed figures on game day. (He was chosen as the B. League’s 2017-18 Mascot of the Year.)

Last season, the Happinets were seventh among the 18 top-flight teams in attendance (3,227).

Fan favorite Yuki Togashi was 19 when he launched his pro career with the Happinets in 2013. He was the bj-league All-Star Game MVP in 2014; what’s more, he led the circuit in assists (7.9 per game) in his dynamic second season. Since then, the diminutive guard’s confidence and all-around game have blossomed. He competed for the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends in 2014-15, and has been a mainstay for the franchise now known as the Chiba Jets Funabashi since 2015. Coming off back-to-back championship runner-up finishes, the Jets, with Togashi playing a starring role, are a resounding success. In June, he became the first player in the B. League to sign a ¥100 million contract.

Hasegawa, a local hero who continued the rich tradition of excellence at powerhouse Noshiro Technical High School, wrapped up his pro career at age 42 in a Happinets uniform in the spring of 2013. Even years past his prime, he brought gravitas to the team as a community icon and backup floor general.

High-scoring forward T.J. Cummings, whose father Terry spent 18 seasons in the NBA, scored 19,460 points and was twice named an All-Star, played for Akita (2012) and Shimane (2013-14) in the early years of both franchises.

Simply put, the Susanoo Magic are a high-profile operation in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, away from the nation’s larger commercial and entertainment centers.

Or as former Shimane star Michael Parker told The Japan Times in 2011: “The boosters in Shimane are about Shimane, and they are about the Magic and they are about everything that we are about. They are really into that.”

Parker was right. In August 2010, two months before their first-ever game, the Susanoo Magic fan club already had more than 5,000 members.

Two seasons ago, Shimane led all B2 clubs in attendance (2,239) before slipping to fourth in 2018-19 (1,991).

For Shimane, EuroLeague coaching legend Zeljko Pavlicevic, Japan’s head coach at the 2006 FIBA World Championship, was at the helm for the franchise’s first three seasons (all with playoff appearances). There was former German League backcourt standout Takumi Ishizaki providing leadership for the new club. And there was shot-blocking maestro Jeral “Stretch” Davis manning the middle. In one memorable January 2012 game against the Saitama Broncos, Davis notched a rare triple-double with blocked shots among the three categories (12 points, 14 rebounds and a league-record 11 blocks).

Akita and Shimane have experienced ups and downs in the B. League era, with both competing in B1 and B2. Akita stormed to a 54-6 record in B2 in 2017-18, earning promotion. Then, a 17-43 record in Spaniard Josep “Pep” Claros’ second season in charge brought renewed focus for promoted assistant Kenzo Maeda to elevate the team’s play in 2019-20.

The Susanoo Magic are coming off a 43-17 season in the second flight, and coach Yukinori Suzuki’s squad is now preparing to compete against Akita and the rest of the first division this season. In the B. League’s opening season, ex-coach Michael Katsuhisa guided Shimane to the B2 crown, then they slipped in B1 in 2017-18, going 11-49 in Suzuki’s first season running the team. For Shimane, now it’s a second attempt to establish continuity by remaining in the top ranks

Boykin joins Evessa staff

Well-traveled forward Ruben Boykin has decided to pursue the next chapter of his basketball career: coaching.

This season, Boykin, now 34, will work on Osaka Evessa bench boss Kensaku Tennichi’s staff, the team announced last week.

Since 2013, Boykin acclimated himself to Japan pro basketball over several seasons during stints with the Akita Northern Happinets, Bambitious Nara, Earthfriends Tokyo Z and Sunrockers Shibuya.

Boykin, who began his pro career in 2007, has also suited up for teams in Poland, Italy, Greece and Germany. The Northern Arizona University alum last played for the Sunrockers in 2018.

“I’m glad to come to the Osaka Evessa,” he said in a statement. “Thank you to the club, coaches, players and fans who invited me. It will be my first season as an assistant coach, but I am very excited about this new challenge. I want to do my best to make it a good season.”

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Contact the reporter: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp

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