Under normal circumstances, he would have been sent off with bouquets of flowers and farewells from his loyal fans — just like every legendary player.
But Takehiko Orimo, one of the best players Japanese basketball has ever produced, was not given the chance to walk off into the sunset.
The Levanga Hokkaido shooting guard’s final game ended up taking place on March 15 against the Kawasaki Brave Thunders in an empty Todoroki Arena. It was one of the last games played before the B. League eventually canceled the remainder of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, a couple of weeks after the May 3 news conference where he announced the end of his 27-year pro career, Orimo still doesn’t feel like he’s really hung up his sneakers for good.
“I feel like I’m in a regular offseason,” Orimo said in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times on Wednesday, one day before his 50th birthday.
Orimo didn’t only have to contend with age this year, revealing after the news conference that he played the 2019-20 season despite having been diagnosed with an interstitial pulmonary lesion — a condition only Levanga’s athletic trainer knew about.
“I didn’t want my team to be concerned about me,” Orimo said when asked why he didn’t inform his teammates. “Putting the disease aside, if you play until my age, people around you are concerned about you anyway.”
But Orimo denied the disease was the main factor in his retirement. Asked at his retirement news conference if he was considering playing another season because of the abrupt way this one ended, he insisted that there would be no looking back.
“I’ve unburdened myself (by deciding to retire) and can no longer put that load back on my shoulders,” Orimo said.
The Saitama Prefecture native describes himself as having had two different careers as a player.
In his “first career” with the Toyota Motors Pacers, who were later renamed Toyota Motors Alvark and then the current Alvark Tokyo, he was simply one of the country’s best players with his exceptional scoring and silky shooting touch. Orimo led the team to three Japan Basketball League titles and was named the league MVP in 2001.
The 190-cm hoopster was also a constant presence on the national team and competed in two FIBA World Championships, in 1998 and 2006. By the time he moved to the Rera Kamuy Hokkaido, Orimo had achieved pretty much everything he could as a player.
At that point, Orimo was already 37 and came off the bench in his last couple of seasons at Toyota. But he said the 2006 world championships in Japan made him believe he still had what it took. Orimo earned a team-best 12.2 points per game in five starts for the host nation, who went 1-4 in a group that included eventual winner Spain.
“I thought I couldn’t be finished there,” said Orimo, who retired with a career scoring average of 12.8 points in 799 contests. “And (if I wanted to play more), going back to Toyota wasn’t an option.”
Orimo chose to go north — to Hokkaido — following an enthusiastic recruitment effort by Tomoya Higashino, who was set to become Rera Kamuy’s first head coach. The two men are the same age and Higashino had served as an assistant coach for both Toyota and the national squad at the 2006 worlds.
“I was wondering how it would feel to play for a professional team. I’d been dreaming of becoming a professional player,” Orimo said. “It wasn’t allowed at Toyota. I wasn’t a pro, I was just playing on a contract for a club. So I wanted to know what being a pro player would be like and thought it would be better for me to go to a club formed from scratch.”
But the journey north to Orimo’s “second career” brought with it a bitter chill. His Hokkaido teams have struggled on the court, with just three winning seasons and one playoff berth since the club’s maiden 2007-08 season.
In the boardroom, Orimo had to take a management role for the Levanga, who were formed with Orimo as the owner in 2011 after Rera Kamuy were removed from the JBL due to financial problems.
At the end of the day, those tough times paid off for Orimo, who accomplished his goal of playing in a genuine professional circuit in the B. League. He could proudly call himself a pro with many fans rooting for him and his team and local media treating the sport “as big as baseball and soccer.”
“I was a contrarian, so when I was in Tokyo (playing for Toyota) and we won championships, I was like, ‘Well, this is not going to draw much attention, is it,'” Orimo said. “My way of thinking completely changed after I came to Hokkaido.”
These days, it’s not so unusual to see star players at clubs in places other than major cities like Tokyo. But Orimo’s move to Hokkaido — which he says nearly everyone he discussed with recommended against — was perceived as a surprise back then.
“No doubt about it,” said Higashino, now technical director for the Japan Basketball Association, when asked if Orimo was a trailblazer for small-market clubs. “There was a high possibility (that Hokkaido wouldn’t have a top-league team) if Orimo hadn’t stood up after the Rera Kamuy were disbanded.”
Torsten Loibl, who coached Orimo at both Toyota and the Levanga, thinks “the love for the game” was what drove Orimo to play in Hokkaido, especially since he took over as a player/president for the Levanga.
“When I coached the Levanga, the club came out of bankruptcy — no money, no gym, no equipment, no assistant coaches, not many players,” the German, who now serves as the director/coach for Japan’s men’s and women’s national 3×3 squads, said via email. “Watching Orimo’s work in Sapporo, I saw the real character of this remarkable man. He never complained, never looked for excuses, never lost self-discipline and never looked down at his ‘no-name’ teammates.”
Orimo may be done as a player, but he’s not finished in the sport. He’ll continue as Levanga president and the task of leading the club won’t be easy, especially given the difficulty in predicting the economic impact of the coronavirus on the club, the league and the country.
He is determined to continue to help the growth of Japanese basketball, which he considers far behind baseball and soccer as a legitimate pro circuit. And he won’t hesitate to use his own name — and reputation — to help narrow that gap.
“We’ll use whatever’s useful,” Orimo said with a laugh. “But no matter how great you were as a player, you could be forgotten after one or two years. I don’t know if I’ll be like that.”