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Thursday, April 19, 2007

BJ-LEAGUE

Sparks provides comic relief, big plays for team


Staff writer

Rasheed Sparks delivers passes and takes them away with equal precision. He also delivers some of the best punch lines in Japan.

News photo
Takamatsu Five Arrows point guard Rasheed Sparks led the bj-league in assists and steals this season. He earned The Japan Times' regular-season MVP accolade. TAKAMATSU FIVE ARROWS PHOTO

Call him the bj-league's version of Damon Jones.

The well-traveled Jones, now a Cleveland Cavalier, is known as much for his 3-point shooting skills as for his unpredictable, humorous nature. He has played for 10 NBA teams since 1998 and started just 111 games in that span through Monday -- that's a lot of time to be on the bench cracking jokes.

In a Cleveland Plain Dealer article, Jones' class-clown antics are described in vivid details, which, not surprisingly, gave other NBA players a good reason to want to attend the 2007 All-Star Weekend festivities in Las Vegas.

"No matter what happens, he's going to be funny," Detroit Pistons guard Richard Hamilton was quoted as saying about Jones. "I can't wait to see it. A lot of people in the league can't wait to see what he's going to do."

Indeed, comic relief is also a valuable component of Sparks' game.

"I am the silliest guy here," he said by phone from Takamatsu, "and I think sometimes I release some of the tension."

Every team deserves having a player like Sparks, who turns 30 in October but often acts like a schoolboy joker around teammates, to help the players laugh and then relax.

Sparks was speaking after the expansion Takamatsu Five Arrows' Monday afternoon practice, but the rhythmic bounce of basketballs could still be heard in the background. After all, his team is in preparation mode for Saturday's bj-league semifinal playoff contest against the Niigata Albirex BB, who had the same regular-season record (25-15) as the Five Arrows but lost three of their four meetings. Saturday's tipoff is 6 p.m. at Ariake Colosseum.

Osaka Evessa, the defending champions, and the Oita HeatDevils meet in the 3 p.m. semifinal.

By all accounts, Sparks has made a huge impact for the Five Arrows. He led the league in assists (4.7 per game) and steals (2.7), scored 11.9 points a game and started all 40 regular-season contests.

To accomplish these feats for an expansion team speaks volumes about Sparks' commitment to his team.

Sparks was named to the league's Best Five Team, and was chosen as The Japan Times' regular-season MVP.

"Whatever my team needs me to go out and do, that's what I do," Sparks said.

"On offense, I just try to get everybody the ball," he added.

Sparks has played for teams in the ABA, USBL, Finland and Germany, but he had never been a league leader in assists before.

"I would rank that very high," he said. "That was one of my short-term goals. It is actually crazy but I did that."

When Sparks arrived in Japan for preseason training, he was expecting to play his natural position, shooting guard, for the Five Arrows.

That quickly changed.

"The GM (Shigeki Maruoka) and the coach (Motofumi Aoki) asked me the very first day I came to Japan if I can play point guard. I said OK," he recalled.

"That is the sacrifice I made at the beginning of the season."

It's been a good fit for Sparks and his teammates.

"I am more comfortable getting my teammates the ball and getting them in a position to score," said the ex-Morgan State (Md.) player who competed against then-Georgetown University standout Allen Iverson in college.

And what was it like to play against Iverson?

"It's really hard (to guard him)," Sparks said. "There's no way you can stop him, no way. Offensively, he just has so many skills."

Did Iverson embarrass you on the court? he was asked.

"Yeah, he basically made everyone look silly," Sparks said.

The Five Arrows have a budding backcourt star in shooting guard Yu Okada, who has thrived as the team's resident 3-point shooter.

Sparks, on the other hand, is a fearless defender with a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He collects steals as quickly as dust settles. The 190-cm guard had a three-game stretch of three straight six-steal performances in December. He finished with 96.

Listen to Sparks describe his defensive approach:

"Constant pressure, tenacious and play hard, and I constantly make my opponent do something he doesn't want to do."

"There are a lot of good scorers in this league," he added. "I just try to make it as hard as possible. I think I anticipate the ball pretty good. I kind of play the passing lane sometimes, too. So you've got to watch how you throw the ball."

The Five Arrows defeated the Albirex by a combined five points in their first two meetings of the season in December. Niigata rebounded by beating Takamatsu 89-71 on Feb. 17, a game in which Sparks had two points.

The next day, Sparks focused on being a defensive stopper, and it paid off. The Five Arrows posted a 90-82 road win.

"My shot was off all weekend, so I said I would concentrate on defense all game," he said. "I caused a lot of problems as far as tipping the ball and I think that kind of changed the tempo of the game, especially in the second half."

As talk of the upcoming playoff games started, Sparks' voice transformed from a relaxed manner to an excited tone.

"We are ready for this game," Sparks said about facing Niigata. "We're ready. I think everybody is mentally focused and we all have the same goal, which is very important, and that is what we had before (the season).

"We are going to make every sacrifice we have got to make and that's been the goal since Day 1. It is not going to be easy because Osaka and Niigata have been there. But if we play hard and have a little luck, we will (advance to the championship game). But first we have to get there."

As his lengthy conversation with The Japan Times wrapped up, Sparks summed up his experience in Japan this way: "To be in another country playing basketball, I'm blessed."

Then, finally, asked to describe his style of play in his own words, Sparks responded by saying, "I'm going to have fun and I'm going to play hard."

Seriously.



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