Basketball / B. League

Virus fears lead to chaotic weekend for B. League clubs

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

There was confusion and mixed reactions from players and coaches over the weekend as the B. League resumed its season.

There was also a lot of chaos.

Japan’s top men’s professional hoops circuit returned to the court after a multiple-week hiatus amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The league announced last week that it would play its games without spectators until at least April 1.

But on Saturday, a contest between the Levanga Hokkaido and Kawasaki Brave Thunders at Todoroki Arena was canceled right before tipoff after three Levanga players recorded a fever, although none exceeded 37.5 degrees Celsius, which is considered a symptom of the virus.

On the same day, three players for the Shiga Lakestars decided to sit out their game because of concerns over the virus.

On Sunday, a game between the Utsunomiya Brex and Chiba Jets Funabashi was called off after one of the referees was found to have a fever. In Tokyo, a second-division game between the Tokyo Excellence and Fighting Eagles Nagoya was delayed by 90 minutes when a member of the television crew reported a fever after returning home from the previous night’s game.

Jets head coach Atsushi Ono, who has led the team to the league title game the past two years, questioned if playing was the right thing to do with so few leagues around the world still operating.

“Rather than asking whether or not we should have spectators (in the arenas), we have to wonder if we should restart this sport, in which you have a lot of (physical) contact and drops (of saliva) and sweat,” Ono said after his team’s 88-80 loss to Utsunomiya at Funabashi Arena. “And we (the coaches) don’t dare to tell them to play regardless of the situation. So we would like (the league) to consider the feelings of the players.”

Hokkaido veteran bench boss Tomohide Utsumi, who had to compete against the powerhouse Brave Thunders without his missing three foreign-born stars, gave an emotional speech about the players, both on his and other teams, who took the floor despite the risk of infection. The 61-year-old choked up while expressing his appreciation for being able to complete a game.

Many players haven’t been afraid to share their thoughts via social media.

Sean Ichioka Hinkey, one of the three absent Levanga players, tweeted Friday: “We just sitting here with all this news coming out but all we are told is that we are playing. Everyone traveling for games are at risk to come into contact with someone then it’s too late to stop the spread.”

Outspoken forward Julian Mavunga of the Kyoto Hannaryz tweeted in Japanese on Thursday, one day after the league’s announcement of the restart. He wrote that he had spoken to other players and many were “concerned” about playing given the situation. In the same post, he expressed concern about the league having resumed the season without having its players tested for the virus.

Kawasaki star center Nick Fazekas said he understands there are different reactions to the virus fears. He confessed that he had “felt like I wasn’t going to play” because he has a two-year-old son and five-month-old daughter at home.

Fazekas said it’s “stressful” for him to go back home and “scary” not knowing what could happen to his family. But he talked with his wife and came to the decision to play for the Brave Thunders because, after all, that is his “work.”

“And God forbid, hopefully, nothing happens to me. Hopefully, nothing happened today,” he said after his squad’s 97-77 win over Hokkaido on Sunday.

Fazekas added: “I know that I’m going to be fine, my wife’s going to be fine. But my five-month little girl, her immune system is probably not there yet. Who knows?”

Ryusei Shinoyama, Fazekas’ teammate, said the sudden cancellation of Saturday’s game caused unrest. The Brave Thunders captain and former Japan national team point guard said the club had told the players to not hesitate to tell either the club president or the general manager if they did not want to play.

Just two days into the resumption on the season, the B. League has already suffered a setback with a pair of games having been called off.

Midway through just the fourth season since its inception, the financial foundation of the league and many of its clubs is not yet solid, which made the decision to not hold games a difficult one.

Popular clubs like Chiba and Kawasaki, who have average per-game attendances of 4,000-5,000, make more than ¥10 million ($93,900) per home contest, on top of additional revenue from merchandise and concessions sales at their arenas.

Knowing it was a tough decision for the league, Jets president Yuya Yonemori said he would support the resumption of the season as the league aims at “continuous growth.”

Brave Thunders president Nobuo Motozawa described the financial damage during the no-spectator period as “immeasurable,” saying the impact would be lessened by not hosting games, rather than playing without fans. However, he added that an extended hiatus would hurt the league and the Japanese game over a longer period of time.

Motozawa, the former chief business director for baseball’s Yokohama DeNA BayStars, insisted some fans could unconsciously lose interest in the league if the period without games was extended further. Prior to this weekend, the B. League had been suspended since late February.

Meanwhile, Utsumi said the safety of the players has to be the top priority for the league as it makes its decisions. Levanga legend Takehiko Orimo, who serves dual roles as a player and club president, “strongly” questioned if it was worth hosting games behind closed doors.

According to a league source, the B. League and the Japan Basketball Players Association held discussions on Monday morning. The league will hold a teleconference with club representatives later this week to discuss whether — and how — to hold games for the remainder of the season.

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner