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Veteran forward Michael Parker is still going strong as he approaches his 40s — the 39-year-old will celebrate his birthday on Dec. 5 — and seen by many as “the heart” of the Gunma Crane Thunders.

He doesn’t stay on the floor as much as he used to, when he’d average nearly 40 minutes for the Rizing Fukuoka and Shimane Susanoo Magic in the bj-league earlier in his career.

Parker, however, is still playing at a high level and is a core member of the Crane Thunders, who he joined this season on loan from the Chiba Jets Funabashi.

Parker said while there may be some who have doubts about his performance due to his age, he said actually felt “better and better” toward the end of the 2019-20 season with the Jets and isn’t showing any signs of rapid decline.

“Personally, I felt just the same as I felt the last four or five years,” Parker said after Gunma’s 103-65 win over the Earthfriends Tokyo Z at Ota City General Gymnasium on Feb. 28. “And luckily, my body’s still at a very high level.”

The Washington D.C. native, who obtained Japanese citizenship in 2015, was averaging 13.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 28.5 minutes per game through Feb 28. He was also averaging 3.2 assists, which puts him on pace to set a new career-high in Japan.

Parker, who won the bj-league scoring title four consecutive years from the 2008-09 campaign and led the league in steals five times, is considered one of the most successful Japanese basketball imports since 2000.

He played for five different teams — in the bj-league, NBL and B. League — before landing in Gunma and entered the season as Japan’s all-time leader with 12,196 points and 6,193 rebounds.

His versatile game and leadership have helped propel the Crane Thunders to a 39-3 record, by far the best in the B. League’s second division.

“Well, I mean, we expected to be pretty good,” the Evergreen State College alum said with a smile when asked about Gunma’s season. “But … we didn’t expect to be this good.”

Parker described his squad as “a crazy, crazy good team” that’s been able to stay in games and win them even when not playing well. Parker even saw the positives from a 99-93 overtime loss against the Sendai 89ers last month, saying the team showed resilience in rallying from a 12-point deficit at halftime.

“It still showed how good of a team we actually are,” Parker said. “So our goal is just to be the best team that we can be.”

Gunma had won a record 33 straight games before that loss to Sendai.

Crane Thunders head coach Fujitaka Hiraoka says he’s essentially allowed Parker to play freely, because that’s when the forward gives the team a better chance to win.

“By doing so, he’ll genuinely play as the heart of this team,” Hiraoka said. “When he doesn’t play well, we’ve tended to play closer games, and when he’s on a roll, our team runs better and shows hustle on the defensive end as well. So he’s really been the heart of this team both offensively and defensively.”

The Crane Thunders have already clinched a postseason berth and have a legitimate shot at promotion to B1 next year.

Parker’s loan term with Gunma expires May 31, but he doesn’t yet have an idea about when he might pull down the curtain on his career.

He simply wants to enjoy competing as long as he can.

“I know that I’m older, but at the same time, I feel like if I’m going to go out, I’d rather go out,” Parker said. “Like, I get to play as much as I want to, I get to do what I want to do. And then, if I’m not good enough, I’ll be the first one to admit it. I don’t want (it) to be on a team deciding that I’m not good enough anymore.

“That’s why I’m very happy to be here because they told me ‘You’re going to play as much as you can.’ And I wanted to be in that situation where it’s like ‘OK, it’s on me.’ Not saying that I’m playing better than I thought I could, but I’m playing. I’ve been doing what I thought I couldn’t.

“I’m very excited to see how long I can keep going.”

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