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Monday, Feb. 1, 2010

BJ-LEAGUE

Okada's 4-point intervention sparks West to bj-league All-Star victory


Staff writer

RIFU, Miyagi Pref. — All-Star games are a collection of highlight-reel plays and fan-friendly events — lots of autographs, fans and players posing for pictures, light-hearted competition — and everyone's agenda is required to include one item: plenty of smiles.

News photo
Main man: Rizing Fukuoka forward Michael Parker displays his MVP prize after Sunday's bj-league All-Star Game. ED ODEVEN

The bj-league followed this script from start to finish on Sunday, and staged a super conclusion courtesy of a late, yet rare, 4-point play.

That sparked the Western Conference's late surge to a 105-102 win over the Eastern Conference in the 2009-10 bj-league All-Star Game at Sekisui Heim Super Arena before 6,091 vocal supporters.

With the East leading 102-99 after a Wendell White layup with 1:08 to play, Takamatsu Five Arrows sharpshooter Yu Okada drained a 3-pointer from the top of the arc, getting a good look on a nice pass from Osaka Evessa forward Lynn Washington, and was fouled on the play.

Okada calmly sank the free throw to put the West ahead 103-102 with 54 seconds left. Center George Leach of the Ryukyu Golden Kings completed the scoring with 10 seconds left. In between, the East missed several shots, and White missed a potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Washington and Leach, former Indiana University players, among others celebrated the West's triumph, chest-bumping one another on the court.

Moments later, Rizing Fukuoka forward Michael Parker, who leads the league in scoring this season (26.7 points per game) after taking home the scoring title last season, was named the MVP.

Parker scored 27 points on 13-for-17 shooting, including six dunks, and added 11 rebounds for a crowd-pleasing double-double.

"It feels great to be the MVP," he said during an on-court interview. "We really wanted to win and that's part of being the MVP."

Parker praised Okada for hitting a "big 4-point shot," later calling it "the best moment in the game."

"He's a great player," Parker continued. "As an opponent, I respect him." Today, Parker added, Okada stepped up to the challenge, saying he was delighted to be a part of the sharpshooter's success.

East coach Honoo Hamaguchi, who guides the Sendai 89ers, referred to Okada's game-deciding play as a "super highlight."

Flashing a smile during the news conference, Hamaguchi said the game proved to be a success because "everyone enjoyed it."

Winning coach Tadaharu Ogawa, who has led the Rizing to an 18-10 record in the season's first half (second place) gushed with glee about the way the game's back-and-forth scoring produced a high level of entertainment. But he also commended the leadership of Washington, the West's All-Star captain, saying the rest of the players respect him and followed his lead to work hard but have fun.

Okada, who was 4-for-6 from 3-point range, was the leading scorer among Japanese players, finishing with 15 points. He also tied Sendai 89ers center Chris Holm for the second-highest total in steals (five). West teammate Masashi Joho (Shiga Lakestars) scored nine. Four East players had five points apiece: Takeshi Mito (Toyama Grouses), Cohey Aoki (Tokyo Apache), Hikaru Kusaka (Sendai) and Yuichi Ikeda (Niigata Albirex BB).

For the East, former UCLA player William Knight, who has helped the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to a 21-5 record in the season's first half, had a team-best 27 points.

The East trailed 80-68 with 1:39 left in the third quarter, but used a 10-2 quarter-ending spurt to pull within two points. White provided the biggest boost for his team, scoring eight points in that stretch and setting the stage for an exciting fourth quarter.

White received the MIP (Most Impressive Player) award, which is given to the top player on the losing team. Finishing with 22 point and three of the East's four dunks, White also collected nine rebounds and seven steals while handing out five assists.

"It's bittersweet," said White, a UNLV product after picking up the consolation award. "But I'm happy I played in an All-Star game."

He added: "I always want to win everything."

Five players from each team scored in double figures. For the East, in addition to the aforementioned production of the Phoenix's offensive juggernauts, Tokyo's Julius Ashby scored a dozen points. Holm and 89ers teammate Demetrius Guions poured in 10 points apiece.

Driving to the hole or converting a running shot, Oita HeatDevils swingman Ricky Woods chipped in with 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting. Leach was the West's No. 3 scorer (18 points). Washington had 12 points to go along with nine rebounds and six assists.

Defense is never a life-or-death priority in All-Star contests, and this game followed a similar story-line.

Consider: There were a whoppingly low 15 fouls called on the afternoon, and the teams had 14 dunks.

Furthermore seeing players do things that aren't a part of their ordinary game repertoire adds to the intrigue of a midseason showcase. This, for example, occurred when, late in the game, the 120-kg Holm grabbed a rebound and dribbled up court like a point guard, while also testing his accuracy from 3-point range (1-for-4). It's not something you'd expect to see from a 212-cm giant.

"This is the All-Star game," he declared, "so you should have a little more fun."

Notes: Japan Basketball Association's Planning Department board member Susumu Ishikawa attended All-Star events over the weekend. During Saturday evening's banquet he made a few formal comments in front of a gathered crowd of a couple hundred people. He told The Japan Times this was his first visit to a bj-league function, congratulating the league for its fifth season as Japan's first "full-fledged" pro basketball league. He said, "I hope that you have contributed enormously to the development of basketball in Japan." He also confirmed his commitment to "cheer for everyone," in the bj-league and JBL, acknowledging talks are ongoing about the future direction of Japan's two pro leagues. He did say, however, "the most important thing" is for the two leagues to begin competition — preseason games, tournaments, whatever, and takes steps to form one so-called top league.

While most of the post-game interviews and banter deal with the All-Star highlights, this reporter abruptly switched topics. Asked about the proposed JBL-bj-league merger in 2013, Hamaguchi, facing a room of reporters, said it's his wish to see this idea become realized. It remains to be seen how many other coaches in either league will publicly voice their support for this idea, especially in a setting such as this one.

The ball is rolling, literally. Ed Winkle, the NBA's senior director of business development and marketing partnerships in its Asia-Pacific offices in Hong Kong, said plans are under way for a greater partnership between the bj-league and the NBA. Future announcements will be made in the spring, he said during Saturday's banquet. NBA Japan officials were also present during the weekend to hold talks with bj-league officials.

The 2010-11 All-Star Game will be played in Osaka at a TBA date. Mitsunori Uehara, the Osaka Evessa president, revealed the news at the completion of Sunday's game. This decision follows the geographical trend of alternating between West and East for each of the league's midseason showcase games — Ryukyu (2006-07, West), Niigata (200-08, East), Oita (2008-09, West).

Though he apologized for being unable to attend the weekend's events, new Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles skipper Marty Brown made a recorded message showing his support for the 89ers and the bj-league. The taped message was played at Saturday's banquet, as well as before Sunday's game. The Eagles, you have probably heard, officially begin preseason training on Monday.

By the numbers: As is typical during All-Star contests, this one featured a lot of passing, razzle-dazzle attempts (no-look lobs and alley-oops were a major staple of the day's dishes) and simple give-and-go ball movement. All told, 17 players recorded at least one assist, led by Kyoto Hannaryz point guard Naoto Takushi's seven. Knight attempted a game-high 27 shots from the field. White had a game-worst eight turnovers. Both teams finished with 20 turnovers. The East collected 19 steals to the West's 12. The teams shot a combined 55 3-pointers; the East was 8-for-32 while the West was 7-for-23. — The East had triumphed in each of the three previous bj-league All-Star Games.

Pre-game highlights: Just a few hours before his dramatic late-game heroics, noted perimeter marksman Okada won the 3-Point Contest and Sendai forward Yoshihiro Tachibana triumphed in the ever-popular Dunk Contest.

Okada outlasted Sendai guard Kenichi Takahashi in the final round, winning 13-11.

"I was able to win, so I am very happy," Okada told reporters. "Takahashi-san is local, so it's difficult to (beat him)."

But the morning's best shooting display occurred in the opening round.

Takahashi racked up 22 points in the round, draining shot after shot after shot and showcasing a quick, fluid shooting motion as he moved from right to left.

In the 60-second round, players take five shots apiece from five stationery locations. The final ball on each rack is dubbed the "power ball" and is worth two points instead of one.

Takahashi didn't have the same rhythm in the second round, but kept it close by nailing several shots as the clocked ticked down to zero.

"I was shooting the ball too quickly in the second round," said Takahashi. "I was thinking about the time."

He admitted, though, that his shooting tempo was good in the first round, enabling him to quickly accumulate points.

Okada advanced to the final round by scoring 18 points. Knight finished with 15 points, followed by defending champion and Oita HeatDevils guard Yukinori Suzuki's 14 and ex-teammates Aoki and Joho with 12 apiece.

Dunk maestros Tachibana and Bryan Simpson, the Golden Kings' gravity-defying, high-flying forward each advanced out of the tough six-man opening round. They then both received six perfect 10s in the championship round to force a tiebreaker final round.

In the tiebreaker, Tachibana edged defending champion Simpson 57-48.

Tachibana, who donned a kabuto (helmet) and other samurai clothes for the first round, jumped over four East players — Sendai's Hikaru Kusaka, Saitama's Hirohito Shishito, Mito and Ikeda — for his last dunk. Score an assist for the stationery participants, providing dramatic support.

Simpson attempted the same final dunk, but he wasn't able to replicate what he did in the first championship round, when he soared over a trio of standing-still players. Simpson jumped into the players, grazing their bodies as he failed to dunk.

"For the most part, it was fun," Simpson said. "I hope everybody was enjoying this (competition) today."

Asked about Tachibana's victory, Simpson said he's happy for him. At the same time, he admitted "I thought I had won it in the second round. I didn't miss a dunk."

The six judges, however, forced a third round, or a tiebreaker round.

The 190-cm Tachibana, who first dunked a basketball at age 16, demonstrated a number of polished moves in the competition, including straight-ahead dunks, reverse jams, as well as a flair for showmanship (he put on shades for one dunk).

Both finalists had plenty of air time as they excited the crowd in the closing rounds, conjuring up memories of old NBA dunk artists, a la Michael Jordan, Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins. This was especially true of Simpson, who did his best impersonation of MJ's famous leap-from-the-free-throw-line-and-stuff-it-home slam in 1987.

Other dunk contestants included White (54 points), Parker (50 points), Ashby (48), Woods (47).



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