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Sunday, March 20, 2011

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Oita fires coach Hepp after American players leave


Staff writer

L.J. Hepp wanted to set the record straight about his unexpected departure from the Oita HeatDevils.

News photo
Scapegoat: Oita HeatDevils coach L.J. Hepp was fired by the team on Wednesday after three of his foreign players left Japan this week in the wake of last week's earthquake and tsunami and the ongoing nuclear crisis. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

This took place during a late-night conversation on Friday with The Japan Times, when the basketball coach said the team fired him earlier in the week due to events beyond his control.

"Four (import) players threatened to leave Japan," said Hepp, who had the HeatDevils (17-21 entering the weekend) in playoff contention. "Three went through and broke their contracts. Team (officials) came to me and said that it's terminating my contract because I could not convince them to stay."

According to a news release issued by the bj-league on Friday evening, center Rolando Howell and forwards Taj Finger and Cyrus Tate had parted ways with the team and that they had been released from their contracts. The release also said Hepp's contract had been terminated, but he contends it was not his choice.

"I did not quit," he said, "and I had no intention of quitting. I've never been a quitter in my life . . ."

Instead, Hepp said, he became the scapegoat for the team's depleted roster.

"Because of the imports leaving . . . they said I am not the head coach anymore," he said.

Before that decision was finalized, he said, he was issued an ultimatum from team management: "If I couldn't keep them in Japan,they were going to terminate my contract."

Tony Hanson, who joined Hepp's coaching staff as an assistant coach last summer, will guide the HeatDevils this weekend against the visiting Rizing Fukuoka. During these uncertain times, in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, followed by the Fukushima nuclear plant's crisis, there's been increasing pressure for the bj-league's foreigner players from their families and agents to return to the United States and/or seek a job with a team in another country.

Hepp, who said he was in Beppu, Oita, Prefecture, during the telephone interview, directed the team's practices this week in preparation for the Fukuoka series. This included a scouting report session on Wednesday evening. Then, after the team activity, Hepp met with team management in what he called a formal meeting and was informed of the HeatDevils' decision to relieve him of his job duties.

The news release about the three players and Hepp did not include quotations from team or league officials, only a few words about the contracts' abrupt conclusion.

Starting over: With heavy hearts, sincere condolences and genuine compassion for those affected by the recent natural disasters in Japan that killed several thousand people, bj-league players and coaches resumed their season of uncertainty (minus the Sendai 89ers, Saitama Broncos and Tokyo Apache) on Saturday.

Mixed emotions were felt by all involved in the buildup to Saturday's four games.

First-year Osaka Evessa coach Ryan Blackwell, whose team is tied for first place with the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the nine-team Western Conference, has guided his team capably and confidently, putting it in position to reach the Final Four for the sixth time in the league's six seasons.

But now Blackwell faces a different sort of challenge, gearing up for two regular-season games against the Shiga Lakestars. The league announced that this weekend's eight games are fundraising efforts for earthquake and tsunami victims. Anything beyond this weekend has still not been officially determined.

Some league sources believe 13 teams can expect a normal schedule to begin next week, including four Eastern Conference clubs that have seen their division ripped apart by the suspended operations of the Kanto-area teams and the unimaginable tragedy in Tohoku.

"Yes, we are playing this weekend," Blackwell said, "but I will say this, the morale and demeanor of the players is not the same as before the disasters. Before, we were playing to win a championship. Now we are plying to give our fans some entertainment and relief from what's happening and to earn a paycheck.

"Yes, this is our job, but with so much uncertainty and uneasiness with everybody and people back home saying, 'Get out now,' it's hard to focus on the game."

Lakestars forward Lamar Rice, whose team is 22-16 entering the showdown against Osaka, believes there's a value to staging games right now.

"I think that resuming play can be a great way to raise more money for the people in Sendai who were affected by the earthquake," Rice said Friday evening. "At this point I think the people need something to look forward to, to take their minds off the tragedy, even if it's just for a weekend."

Ryukyu Golden Kings star Jeff Newton said, "We are just glad to be able to go out and try to lift some spirits and help with the fundraising. We are committed to this as long as we continue."

Evessa All-Star Billy Knight shared his thoughts as well.

"I have mixed emotions about playing so soon, but it can be good for people to watch sports and enjoy the game and keep their mind off this terrible tragedy," Knight said Saturday afternoon, only hours before game time. "I just hope that it is safe to play. The news says so much stuff and the Japanese news is different from the American news.

"I put my faith and trust in God. He knows what's best for me."



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