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Friday, Jan. 21, 2011

News photo
All-Star skills: Takamatsu's Rasheed Sparks (13) will participate in the Slam Dunk Contest before the bj-league's 2010-11 All-Star Game on Sunday in Osaka, while Tokyo's Jumpei Nakama will compete in the 3-Point Shootout. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Hill, Blackwell poised for All-Star Game clash


Staff writer

Coaches with contrasting careers will lead their respective conferences during the bj-league's 2010-11 All-Star Game on Sunday in Osaka.

Ryan Blackwell, months removed from his retirement as an Osaka Evessa forward, and Bob Hill, a veteran coach of four NBA teams, are the head men for the Western and Eastern Conference squads. Tipoff is slated for 12:30 p.m. at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. The game will be televised by BS Fuji and GAORA.

Blackwell's Evessa enter the All-Star break on a four-game slide, but they have the top record in the nine-team conference at 17-9, one more win and one less defeat than the Shiga Lakestars.

Hill's Tokyo Apache, meanwhile, are 12-8 after a midweek series against the Takamatsu Five Arrows, riding a five-game win streak into the break.

Both coaches said they are looking forward to the fifth annual midseason showcase.

"Being my first year as a coach and to coach at the All-Star Game in Osaka is extra special for myself and for the West team," Blackwell said. "Also, on the West team all the votes that came in for Osaka's former players (Ryukyu's Jeff Newton and Shiga's Mikey Marshall and Masashi Joho) and our current players, it's extra special for a lot of the fans."

Hill admitted this experience will be a refreshing change from his perspective of the NBA's All-Star Game.

"I'm not a big All-Star Game fan," he told reporters on Tuesday. "I've been to All-Star Games, but the All-Star Game in the NBA has diluted itself. . . . They don't really play anymore. It's all show and nobody wants to get hurt. Everybody tries to score the most points so they can be the MVP and make money. I'm just not, nor have I ever been, much of an All-Star fan.

"I'm looking forward to this experience to get to know more of the players and some of the brass at the bj-league and I think it's going to be fun," he added.

"All-Star games are for the fans, that's who it's for. It's not for the coaches. I don't know a whole lot of coaches that enjoy All-Star games because no defense is played and they throw crazy passes. That's what the fans want to see. It's for them, and it's a necessity."

Hill's true approach to coaching won't be on display on Sunday. But he offered a succinct summary of his philosophy after Tuesday's game.

"It's never been about the winning and losing with me, it's about the performance and improvement and getting better and coming together as a team," Hill said.

Chosen by the fans, the West's All-Star starters are guards Takumi Ishizaki (Shimane) and Masashi Joho (Shiga), forwards Billy Knight (Osaka) and Lynn Washington (Osaka) and center Jeff Newton (Ryukyu).

The East's five starters are guards Cohey Aoki (Tokyo; the lone five-time All-Star starter) and Naoto Takushi (Niigata), forwards Mike Bell (Sendai) and Kazuya Hatano (Saitama) and center Julius Ashby (Niigata; he's previously been an All-Star during stints with Takamatsu and Tokyo).

Saitama coach Bob Nash said Blackwell has done a commendable job for Osaka.

"He's a guy that understands the league having played in the league," Nash told reporters after Saturday's Broncos-Evessa game. "To coach superstars (Lynn Washington, Billy Knight) is not easy, but he has the respect of those guys. When he says something, they understand it because he's been through it before."

"He's a young coach learning the craft and doing a great job in his first year," Nash added, citing wins and losses as a chief example. "I think he's just going to get better and better."

Glaring omission: Lakestars power forward Gary Hamilton, possibly the league's hardest-working player, did not make the Western Conference All-Star team. His numbers, though, are worthy of an All-Star selection; a league-best 15 rebounds per game, as well as 2.0 steals (No. 3), 58.7 percent shooting from the field (No. 5).

He's averaging 13.9 ppg. He leads the West's second-place team in rebounds, steals and assists. Not an easy thing to do.

Weekly accolade: Ryukyu Golden Kings guard Shigeyuki Kinjo is the Lawson/Ponta Player of the Week, the league announced on Thursday.

Kinjo, averaging 10.2 points per game, scored 21 points on 9-for-18 shooting in a series-opening loss to the Sendai 89ers on Saturday. He had 16 points, including 8-for-8 shooting at the foul line, on Sunday as the Golden Kings earned a series split by beating Sendai 98-96.

Solid addition: Former Niigata big man Dokun Akingbade, reuniting with ex-Albirex teammates Makoto Hasegawa and Ryosuke Mizumachi at Akita, has had a steady hand in the Northern Happinets' improved inside play of late.

In 16 games, he has 185 rebounds, including 72 in the past four games, and is fifth in the league in that category (11.6 per game). He's averaging 10.4 points.

"We battled on the boards early in the season, we were still usually outrebounded. Now we often have more rebounds than our opponents," Akita coach Bob Pierce said.

As the weeks progress, the Happinets bench boss expects Akingbade to make a greater impact on scoring.

"Offense is still a work in progress," Pierce said. "At first Dokun probably held back a bit too much, because he didn't want to disrupt the chemistry of the guys who were already there. As he became more comfortable with the plays and his teammates, he became more assertive on offense. His best plays, though, are usually when he's running the floor, or crashing the boards after another player's shot.

"And having played with Hasegawa and Mizumachi in Niigata, there was a trust between them that I think helped make his transition easier. Hasegawa has a good sense for which player is right for a certain situation, so when he says to someone, 'attack the basket,' or 'we need you to rebound' they often respond well to that belief in their ability."

Recent signings: Veteran forward Kirby Lemons has reached a deal to play for Takamatsu for the remainder of the season. The 200-cm Lemons played for Toyama and Saitama last season; he also suited up for the Broncos during the team's JBL days.

Forward Cyrus Tate, who played college ball at Iowa, has joined the Oita HeatDevils. The 203-cm Tate played for the JBL's Rera Kamuy Hokkaido last season and has also collected a paycheck in the Venezuelan League.

Bad performance: Apache forward Jeremy Tyler picked up three fouls and had two turnovers in 5:57 of playing time on Tuesday. Tyler's mental performance was particularly disappointing to Hill.

"I need him not to get in foul trouble. I need him not to turn the ball over and I don't care if he scores," Hill said. "I can't even begin to tell you since last July almost every day how hard we've worked with him to catch the ball on the inside pivot and drive to the basket, lay it in or dunk it. Just play. I'm not going to be critical if he's missing shots.

"But he gets into the game tonight and he just gave the guy and elbow in the chest. They don't do that in sumo wrestling. We went to a sumo wrestling match the other day, but they didn't do that. They tried to pick each other up from the belts, but they don't smack each other right away. I don't understand that — what he's doing. So I've got to get him playing, contributing, not turning the ball over, not fouling.

Quotable: "Hamamatsu is a great team. They look like a championship team and keep composure when they need to.

— Blackwell, analyzing the Phoenix, who are 24-2 at the break.

Issuing a challenge: "You've got to be a man. Hamamatsu's team is full of men. They've got men on their team, and that's what we need to have and that's what we need to develop — men.

— Hill, speaking out about his team's listless play in the first half on Tuesday and its inconsistent performance this season.

Collector's item: Japanime Co. Ltd., the Saitama Prefecture-based creative agency that has produced player trading cards for each of the bj-league's previous four All Star games, will release an enhanced set for Sunday's contest in Osaka.

The "Ultra Kaiju Draft" trading card set features cards for each of the 22 players selected to All Star squads, as well as 16 cards depicting the notorious kaiju (strange beasts) from the various classic Ultraman television series. A premium card picturing Ultraman with the head and assistant All Star coaches is also included.

The "Ultra Kaiju Draft" is a bj-league 2010-11 season promotion in which each of the league's 16 teams has been assigned a "kaiju" super-player, including such fan favorites as Alien Baltran (Akita Happinets), Verokron (Osaka Evessa) and King Joe Black (Kyoto Hannaryz).

"Every year we try to do something new, and this set is our most exciting yet," said Japanime CEO Glenn Kardy. "We think fans of the bj-league and Ultraman alike are going to love these cards."

The full set, which retails for ¥1,500 including tax, comes in an attractive holographic foil box and can be purchased at all bj-league games, including the All-Star Game in Osaka, as well as from Amazon Japan and Japanime's online store at www.howtodrawmanga.com.

Valuable asset: With Mototaka Kohama, affectionately known as the godfather of Japanese basketball, serving as a team adviser the expansion Happinets have a terrific resource as they strive to build a winning foundation for the future.

Just ask Pierce.

"He started the Akita Isuzu team that eventually moved to Yokohama and won all those championships in the JBL," the Akita coach said of the now 78-year-old Kohama. "(Makoto) Hasegawa played on that last championship team before Isuzu folded, and he still has a good relationship with Kohama.

"I couldn't really tell you what he does as adviser, since most of his advising is in talks with Hasegawa or our GM, Seiichi Ohba. He has been very encouraging to me.

"I think he has been to eight games, six in Akita and the two in Saitama. Players feel some pressure when he's there, sitting behind or near the bench. One player keeps saying how tough it is, and how tough it must be for me, to have a very traditional old-style coach sitting there.

"When he's there he usually likes to talk to the players after our post-game meeting. I go to do the press conference, so I'm not there. First time he spoke for about 30 minutes, but after that kept his remarks shorter. Most of the time it seems like he just talks about playing hard, fighting spirit, etc.

"Or he just talks about his past, going to Kentucky, coaching Jack Givens, working with Pete Newell. One player commented after his first talk that it wasn't advice so much as him reciting his resume.

"The Happinets really struggled early on to get cooperation from the different basketball associations in Akita because the bj-league wasn't part of JBA. So I'm sure that the biggest part of bringing in Kohama, one of the most powerful people ever in the JBA when he was the national team head coach, was just to show the local associations that we were legit and supported by one of the legends up here."

Closing commentary: The Tokyo Apache's announced attendance for Tuesday's game was 686 spectators at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2, which seats 3,200.

It was another reminder of the urgent need for a league-wide marketing strategy — big, bold and aggressive — and a truly appealing ticket campaign (¥500 tickets on the day of the game would be a worthwhile proposal; try it, and if it fails, try something else) at all league venues.

This much is certain: There's nothing that's more a turnoff to TV stations' sports directors than a game at an arena featuring rows and rows of empty seats.

Without fans in the stands, future broadcasts and related programs (feature interviews, mini-documentaries, game highlights) have less chance of being scheduled. This, in turns, hurts the league's ability to attract more sponsors, raise revenue and pay the bills.

Whatever the Apache and the league are doing to promote the team, it isn't working — it isn't even almost working. To succeed, in Tokyo and on a national level, the league needs true collaboration between teams, local media, national media and companies that will aggressively market the league in new, interesting, memorable ways. But at the same time they must use traditional mediums — newspapers, magazines, billboards — as a way of making a dent, a lasting impression, in the public's psyche.

Exhibit A: The Apache had 9,100-plus fans at their home opener in November 2006 against the Osaka Evessa; this season's delayed home opener on Jan. 6 was played before an announced crowd of 1,033 at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.

Has interest in the team really dropped that significantly? Even if a number of tickets were free at the 2006 game, this is a shocking drop.

Or has the team somehow managed to alienate a sizable portion of its fan base, as many league sources have suggested, and failed to sustain interest due to a variety of reasons, including a change in ownership and a naive approach to the entertainment market in Kanto?

Time will tell.

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