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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Apache pull plug on 2011-12 season

Staff writer

Due to financial problems, the Tokyo Apache have suspended operations for the bj-league's 2011-12 season, it was announced on Tuesday.

News photo
Tough news: All-Star guard Cohey Aoki will have to find a new team after the bj-league announced Tuesday that the Tokyo Apache will not play during the 2011-12 season. YOSHIAKI MIURA

Evolution Capital Management, the Apache's parent company, and the league have reached a mutual agreement, according to league spokesman Akihiro Ejima.

In a telephone interview, Ejima said it's "very difficult to draw a clear line" as to whose decision it was, but he admitted there were serious concerns about the team's ability to meet its financial obligations for the coming season, which is scheduled to begin in October.

The Apache, therefore, will become the first team in league history to drop out for an entire season. The Apache, Saitama Broncos and Sendai 89ers all ended their 2010-11 seasons after the March 11 earthquake.

Apache president Chris Hetherington clarified Ejima's statements in an email. He wrote: "The decision not to field a team was a decision by Apache management and not specifically by a person within Evo (Evolution). Evo has been incredibly supportive of the management of the Apache and the factors that led to this were beyond anything the Apache management could have foreseen."

The decision was finalized on Monday evening, Ejima said, as the league formally approved the proposal for the Apache to continue their extended time away from the league.

"The league wanted to make sure to get it done quickly," Ejima added, noting the ongoing concerns for Apache players and staff, whose future job prospects are up in the air.

Lengthy meetings took place among the Apache's top brass before a decision was made.

"This was a very tough decision for our organization," Hetherington said. "Our goal all along was to build a franchise our fans, city and league was proud of and to do our part to help the league and sport of basketball grow in Japan. I am very proud of the NBA-style product we had. We fought up until the final hour to work something out."

The Apache, however, have been among the league's worst draws in terms of attendance since moving to Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 from Ariake Colosseum in 2009, and were playing under their fourth management group in as many seasons. Evolution purchased the team last June and quickly made a splash, hiring NBA veteran Bob Hill as coach and signing ex-NBA center Robert Swift and NBA prospect Jeremy Tyler.

Moving forward, the bj-league, which reportedly had a team salary cap of ¥77 million last season, will now have 19 teams for its seventh season - 10 Eastern Conference teams and nine in the Western Conference. The league's annual draft will be held on June 16.

The Tokyo Apache players have all become free agents, including five-time All-Star Cohey Aoki, Jumpei Nakama and Darin Satoshi Maki, all of whom first suited up for Tokyo in 2005, when Joe Bryant coached the team. (Players were informed by phone about the news on Monday.)

Hill's contract expired at the end of May. The former mentor of the NBA's Knicks, Pacers, Spurs and SuperSonics, is now serving as a technical consultant for the Taiwan men's national team. In an email on Sunday, Hill indicated he didn't plan to return to Tokyo for a second season.

This reporter received word late Monday that a "big announcement" would be made on Tuesday. Several longtime sources confirmed that the Apache were out of the picture for the coming season.

Word spread quickly throughout Japan's basketball community, including a league vendor who got a phone call from the league's licensing company on Tuesday morning telling him about the team's disappearance for 2011-12.

On May 26, the league announced that 20 teams would compete in 2011-12, including the 89ers, if their tsunami-damaged main gymnasium could be ready and they could secure enough sponsors to pay the bills.

Now, the Apache's future is in limbo.

"Nothing's really been decided for next season," Ejima said, referring to 2012-13.

The league office, he added, wants to have a speedy resolution about the franchise's future, but there's no clear-cut picture yet about what will occur.

"We'll have to start talks soon," Ejima said.

In the meantime, Evolution won't rule out selling the team, and several business groups have already been contacted, according to Hetherington.

"Anything that happens in terms of an equity partner and further play will need league approval," Hetherington said.

The post-March 11 economic downturn compounded the issue.

"The lack of sponsors had a huge effect on this decision," Hetherington said. "As I said, we worked tirelessly to secure sponsors and partners over the last few months. The reality is the business for securing commitments from both current and new business partners and sponsors deteriorated significantly in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami of March 11 . . ."

In past years, there were serious doubts that the cash-strapped Oita HeatDevils and Takamatsu Five Arrows would field teams, and at one point, the league said it expected the Five Arrows to suspend operations for the 2009-10 season, which never materialized. Now that the Apache announcement has been made, does Hetherington think there could be an 11th-hour reversal?

"No," he said. "I don't see any way of playing this season unless the league can secure an equity partner or buyer ASAP."

Under new owner Michael Lerch, the Apache struggled to attract a sizable number of core business sponsors. For instance, a recent tallying up of local businesses associated with the Shiga Lakestars showed that the team had around 90 business partners. The Apache listed five on their website last season.

To say the least, the Apache's season got off to an awkward start. Their first home game wasn't played until Jan. 6 in Tokyo. Twenty-four of their final 40 games were to be played at Yoyogi but only four on weekends. As it turned out, the Apache (20-14 overall) wound up playing only 12 games in Tokyo last season, including 10 on weekdays.

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