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Takuya Kita and Takahiro Setsumasa were once star guards at Todoroki Arena, but almost never played in front of packed stands.

That’s not the case today for the Kawasaki Brave Thunders, who have grown into one of the B. League’s most popular clubs.

On Sunday, the pair were in attendance to see their jersey numbers — Kita’s No. 51, Setsumasa’s No. 8 and the No. 40 of Freddie Cowan, the club’s first-ever import player — retired during halftime of the Brave Thunders’ game against the Osaka Evessa.

The three are the first Kawasaki players to have their numbers retired. The ceremony was originally supposed to be held in March, but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Me personally, I’m jealous of the current players that can play before near full-house crowds,” said Kita, who served as the team’s general manager. “The clubs today have put in a lot of effort, but during our time, the arenas would not be sold out except for big occasions like championship games.”

In the 2019-20 campaign, which was forced to an abrupt end in late March because of the outbreak, the Brave Thunders recorded the league’s second-highest average home attendance of 4,715, an increase of 27.4% from the previous season.

But both Kita and Setsumasa agreed that current players need to work even harder — and act more professionally — than they did in their heyday in order to satisfy modern fans.

“I wanted to play in a place like that,” said Setsumasa, who played his entire career as point guard for the Brave Thunders. “But you get to be watched by so many people and they see every single play you do. I was short-tempered and would get sulky at times, but the current players can’t afford to do that.”

Kita added, “Playing in front of full-house crowds, you are not supposed to make ugly plays, you always have to play as hard as you can. And even when you lose, you have to make the fans think they want to come back. We were a corporate team so we were playing for Toshiba. But it’s gotten bigger to the extent that the team is now playing for the city of Kawasaki and its fans. So their responsibility is much larger.”

Before the professional B. League opened its inaugural 2016-17 season, Japan’s top leagues had been operated as semi-pro leagues with big companies owning the majority of the clubs. In the era of Kita and Setsumasa, all Brave Thunders players were company employees for Toshiba who would work at offices and plants during the morning and practice in the afternoon.

Funnily enough, Kita thought that his number would never be retired after the team’s ownership moved from Toshiba to DeNA. Setsumasa joked he was fortunate to be honored in the ceremony because he thought nobody had used the number since his 2009 retirement.

Many of the fans at Todoroki on Sunday may not have known the pair’s careers as players, although they probably do recognize Kita, who served as the team’s head coach for eight years through 2018-19.

But the two surely have written their names noted in the history of the club, which is celebrating its 70-year anniversary this season. Having joined the team together in 1995, when the team’s nickname was still the Red Thunders, Kita and Setsumasa led the side to two league titles as well as a pair of Emperor’s Cups at the All-Japan Championship, turning Toshiba into a perennial title contender.

The Brave Thunders may be under different ownership with different players on the court, but Kita and Setsumasa — both 48 now — believe that many of the team’s traditions on and off the court, including a defense-first focus key to their squad’s winning culture, have been passed down.

“Whether it’s head coach (Kenji) Sato or Kita when he was the head coach, they don’t talk about anything but defense,” Setsumasa said. “For this team, defending is performed by everybody. When someone gets past an opponent, someone else has to go cover. Not that it’s criminal for someone to allow an opponent past him, but where the player that’s supposed to go cover the man is and things like that — that’s how we look at things defensively.”

Setsumasa added that he observed current Brave Thunders players doing some of those small things on defense during Sunday’s game, in which the hosts crushed the Evessa 88-53.

Kita praised Kawasaki’s current generation for playing as a team, saying its players have always been able to sacrifice themselves for their teammates to achieve their ultimate goal — winning.

“I think the culture that they play, aiming to win as a team, has been carried over from the past,” said Kita, who was an exceptional sharpshooter and captured the MVP award in the team’s JBL title-winning season in 1999-2000. “Sometimes their core players take the spotlight, but those players understand they can do so because of other players’ support and they appreciate that.”

Kita and Setsumasa were glad that their retired numbers would be reminders of their presence at the club.

“As our numbers have been retired this time, maybe it’s made some of the current Kawasaki players think they eventually want their numbers to be retired,” said Setsumasa, who represented Japan at the FIBA World Championships in 1998 and 2006. “I don’t think the players playing at schools and youth clubs have seen me play. But maybe they’ll talk about why No. 8 is hanging on the wall and, hopefully, this club will inspire those young players at elementary, middle and high schools to want to play for this team.”

According to the Brave Thunders, the team plans to bring Cowan, who was drafted by the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Draft but instead chose to play for Toshiba, to Japan next spring.

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