Basketball

Japan's 3x3 squad for Tokyo 2020 takes shape

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

When 3×3 basketball’s inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was announced, longtime proponent Tomoya Ochiai was beside himself.

At the same time, he wondered if the sport’s Olympic inclusion was legitimate.

“When I first started playing, we would be playing on the concrete, sometimes in the pouring rain,” Ochiai said after the Japan men’s national 3×3 team training camp at Tokyo’s National Training Center on Wednesday. “I was thinking, ‘Is something like this really going to be an Olympic sport?'”

Now, Ochiai is focused on making the roster and helping Team Japan realize its aim of winning a medal at the games.

“I think Japan has a genuine chance to shoot for a medal,” the 32-year-old said. “(The sport’s inclusion) would be meaningful only if we win a medal.”

While the women’s national team will likely rely on traditional 5-on-5 players from the Japan Women’s Japan Basketball League — if it even earns an Olympic spot — the men’s squad will likely be a mix of 5-on-5 regulars and 3×3 specialists. Ochiai, one of Japan’s top 3×3 players, has a strong chance of donning a Japan jersey next summer.

In March, FIBA announced that both the men’s and women’s 3×3 teams would secure spots for the Tokyo Games as hosts. That decision was later negated by the International Olympic Committee, which decided that one of the teams — eventually determined to be the women’s team — would have to earn a berth on its own.

In the men’s competition, rosters consist of four players and two of them have to be ranked in the top 10 domestically. The other two must be ranked in the top 50 domestically or boast at least 54,000 points in the FIBA 3×3 individual rankings as of June 22, 2020.

Ochiai, a 195-cm forward who plays for the Tokyo Dime.EXE 3×3 team and the B. League second division’s Koshigaya Alphas, is the No. 1 player in Japan and 81st in the world with 569,560 FIBA points.

Ochiai, who has established his reputation by competing in Japanese streetball circuits such as Somecity (3×3) and Allday (5 on 5), agrees that bringing in B. League players could raise the level of the 3×3 game. But he also insisted that professional full-court players would not be an automatic upgrade and stressed that the Japanese squad must adjust to the 3×3 game as a unit.

“We will need a lot more international experience,” said Ochiai, who is known as “Worm” in the streetball world. “When we get that, then we can start winning.”

Torsten Loibl, the head coach for both the men’s and women’s national teams, has brought in other fascinating names for the latest training camp.

American-born Japanese forward Ira Brown was seen providing physicality and leadership during Wednesday’s practice. The 37-year-old, of the B. League’s Osaka Evessa, represented Japan during Asian qualifying for the 2019 FIBA World Cup before Nick Fazekas replaced him as the team’s one allowed naturalized player.

Brown said that he felt “good about being back here at the NTC” and thrilled for a potential chance to compete at the Olympics.

“I’m very excited,” said Brown, who represented the United States at the 2012 FIBA World 3×3 Championship in Athens. “Not many people can say that they are actually Olympians. I get the opportunity to be a part of Japan, representing Japan, and it’s like a dream come true for me.”

The Gonzaga University alum was not coy with his ambition, saying that he “would love to be on the 5-on-5 national team.

“I had a great time with the guys when I had the opportunity and I gave it my all. But obviously, some things don’t work out. I think Fazekas has been tremendous with them. He’s helped them out so they got where they need to be.

“But having an opportunity to play 3-on-3 now is a huge opportunity for me and also for Team Japan to try to win a medal at the Olympics.”

Loibl said that there were “top-quality” players from the B. League who failed to come through once they transitioned to the 3×3 game. But that wasn’t the case with Brown.

“Watching Ira play, I was very positively surprised how good and shaped he is,” the German coach said.

“Because he came out of injury from last season (Brown underwent surgery on his right knee last December). He was in top shape — it was very good news. And he came in with a lot of excitement. (He brought) lot of energy to our team.”

The provisional national squad also features Yuya Nagayoshi (Kyoto Hannaryz) and Takuya Hashimoto (Evessa), two of the four former national team players who were suspended for the majority of last season by the JBA for hiring a sex worker during the Asian Games in Jakarta.

Nagayoshi, 28, told reporters that while he had been hesitant to wear the national team jersey again in the wake of the incident in Jakarta, he made up his mind to participate in the camp after receiving support from his fans and family.