Basketball / B. League

JBPA President Shigehiro Taguchi gives rise to players' voices during pandemic

by Kaz Nagatsuka

STAFF WRITER

Chiba Jets Funabashi Shigehiro Taguchi, a two-time B. League All-Star, has been one of the league’s most popular players because of his cheerful personality.

His smile might have been a little less bright last November, when he was chosen to become the third president of the Japan Basketball Players Association, due to the burden of taking on the role.

Regardless of who the JBPA chief was, though, no one could’ve imagined dealing with the situation caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, which would eventually force the league to cancel the remainder of its 2019-20 campaign.

Looking back at when he took the baton from former president Joji Takeuchi last fall, Taguchi was frank when he told the Alvark Tokyo forward/center he could not bear the responsibility being the head of the association.

“He said, ‘We couldn’t think of anybody else but you,’” Taguchi said, recalling Takeuchi’s words in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “‘You’ve been actively involved in our charity events and meetings, it’s got to be you who leads the players.’”

The JBPA was formed back in 2013, when the men’s top-flight pro basketball scene was split between the National Basketball League and bj-league. Yusuke Okada, who now plays for the Kyoto Hannaryz, was the inaugural president.

According to Taguchi, the majority of the league’s Japanese players are members.

The JBPA is a general incorporated association and does not operate as a labor union, unlike the similar organizations in the NBA, Major League Baseball and other prominent pro leagues around the world. Its main objective is to promote the game and raise basketball’s popularity throughout the nation.

But as a result of the confusion surrounding the coronavirus situation, the JBPA, perhaps for the first time since its inception, sat down with the league in meetings to discuss what the players would like to do with the season.

After a couple of weeks of hiatus, the league resumed play on March 14. But two games were called off after a few players and a referee recorded fevers right before tipoff.

Taguchi said after the Levanga Hokkaido-Kawasaki Brave Thunders game at Todoroki Arena on March 14, one of the contests that was canceled, the JBPA gathered opinions from players about competing under the uncertain circumstances.

The 30-year-old said there were players who would play if the season went on, but none who were adamant play should continue.

“There were also somewhat negative voices asking things like, ‘What if there are secondary infections on the team?’ Or, ‘This is a game where you have a lot of physical contact and what if we get infected?’” said Taguchi, who averaged 6.4 points while starting in all 40 games for the Jets, who finished third in the East Division with a 28-12 record, during the shortened season.

On March 16, one day after that chaotic weekend, JBPA leaders had a discussion with the league to convey concerns players were having.

Takeuchi and a few other members visited the league office for that meeting, while Taguchi and other association leaders participated via a teleconference system.

Before the season resumed, the league issued coronavirus measures for clubs to follow, including what players needed to do if they experience symptoms of the virus.

Taguchi said some players insisted their respective clubs had not fully instructed them about these guidelines.

Some of the import players expressed their concerns about competing under the circumstance while others said they did not feel they were protected enough by their clubs or the league.

The JBPA had another meeting with the league on March 25, two days before the circuit announced the season cancellation.

One thing Taguchi regrets is not having a meeting when the league initially went on hiatus in late February.

“Yes, we should’ve done it earlier,” the Akita Prefecture native said. “When the league was suspended, we as players probably thought we would be back on the court again, not thinking about it too seriously. I don’t think anybody thought at the point the league would be canceled. But it (cancellation) ended up happening, for the first time (since the league started). So I don’t want something like this to happen again, but in case it does, I, as the president, would like our players association to move faster.”

Meanwhile, Kawasaki guard Ryusei Shinoyama, who is a vice president of the JBPA, said late last month that it was a positive that the association and league communicated with each other to discuss how the league be run.

“We feel like the distance between the league and our players association has gotten closer, and we were grateful about that,” Shinoyama said. “It was a positive experience for us because we feel our players association was able to raise our value through this.”

Taguchi agrees completely. He added that he would like to genuinely make the association serve as a window to represent the players’ voices going forward.

“It’s been like, we hear from players but haven’t really had the occasion (to convey the messages to the league),” said Taguchi, who moved to the Jets from the Akita Northern Happinets in 2018. “But from here on out, we would like to be on the same page as the players association so we can remove anxieties of our players.”

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