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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

BJ-LEAGUE

Veteran Hasegawa confident Albirex can make bj-league final


Staff writer

Even at age 36, Makoto Hasegawa is still on fire.

News photo
Niigata's Makoto Hasegawa has helped lead his team to the bj-league playoffs for the second straight season. NIIGATA ALBIREX PHOTO

But this does not just refer to his play. His soul is always burning on the wooden court, and that's why it's worth watching him at the arena.

"I've never thought about it," the Niigata Albirex BB veteran said with a laugh. "I just love this game and that's why I continue to play. I believe I have a bigger passion for basketball than any other player on the team.

"If I lose it, it'll be time to quit. I have fatigue and injuries, but I've been able to overcome those because I had it."

The 185-cm point guard's love for the game made him wander from league to league.

Hasegawa, who became one of the first two Japanese professional basketball players in 1997, has played for three JBL teams (Matsushita Electric's Super Kangaroos, Zexel Blue Winds and Isuzu Giga Cats) and even crossed the ocean to play for the San Diego Wild Fire in the ABA.

All those teams have now disbanded except for Matsushita.

Before turning pro, the Akita Prefecture native won numerous championship titles in high school, college and the JBL.

He led the Super Kangaroos to a JBL championship and won the league MVP award as a rookie in 1994. He joined the Albirex in 2002, and was a member of the team when it made the switch to the bj-league in 2005.

He has also shone at international games, and was a member of the national team when Japan was second behind the United States in the 1995 World University Games (the 18th Universiade) in Fukuoka, and played in the 1998 FIBA World Championship in Saudi Arabia, where Japan placed 14th.

In other words, Hasegawa's accomplishments have stood the test of time. He is a proven winner.

For Hasegawa's Albirex teammates, his presence on the roster is a source of excitement and inspiration, and it is not simply because he is the team's oldest player.

"He has won championships in high school, college and the JBL. He has won it all," said Niigata center Nick Davis. "That just speaks for itself."

As the four-team playoffs get closer, Niigata coach Masaya Hirose has raised the team's intensity level in workouts.

Despite having finished in second place (25-15) in the regular season, Albirex has its guard up high, perhaps higher than the other three playoff-advancing teams -- the Osaka Evessa, Takamatsu Five Arrows and Oita HeatDevils.

Niigata will face the Five Arrows (25-15, third in the season), who immediately made an impact in the league in their debut season and made the playoffs, in the semifinals on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Ariake Colosseum. Niigata and Takamatsu played four times in the regular season. The Shikoku club won three of those four contests.

But Hasegawa thinks playoff ball is different and the Albirex have the edge over the first-year team.

"We're not concentrating only on Takamatsu," said Hasegawa, who averaged 7.9 points and 2.1 assists this season, topping last season's numbers in both categories. "It's only a passing point for us to the championships.

"Frankly speaking, if we do everything we're supposed to do -- play stingy defense and play fast-tempo offense -- I believe we have about 70 to 80 percent of a chance to win (against Takamatsu)."

Hasegawa said one of the keys will be how his team's bench players chip in, citing an example of the Evessa from last season.

"This is the case for every team, though, not that five players keep standing on the court for the entire 40 minutes . . . Anyone will have to sit on the bench for a minute or two," he said. "Then, how much those substitute players can do is important.

"It was so last season. For Osaka, (David) Palmer had a huge contribution, coming off the bench and did (the little things), such as rebounding. The MVP was (Lynn) Washington, but Palmer was working like an MVP."

When he was playing for the Giga Cats in the JBL, an excited Hasegawa got so physical that an opposing American player got excited, too, and spit in Hasegawa's face during a playoff game.

That, in a nutshell, sums up Hasegawa's game. For opponents, he is a classic nuisance.

Like the arrival of sakura every spring, Hasegawa, the quintessential playoff pest, is getting worked up for the postseason, and he could impact the destiny of the Albirex.



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