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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007

HOOP SCOOP

Kimura fulfills dream in bringing pro hoops to Okinawa


"Dreams come true. Without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have them.''
-- John Updike

Ed Odeven

Tatsuro Kimura is a dreamer. He's also a big-time sports fan. And don't forget this: He is a visionary.

Kimura is the driving force behind the efforts of many dedicated folks to bring a professional basketball team to Okinawa.

Having a bj-league team based in Okinawa is goal No. 1 for Kimura.

But it's just a start. He sees the big picture: Sports can be a vehicle for positive societal change, or a sport can change for the better with the right, go-for-it mind-set and proper leadership in place.

Kimura's life experiences helped him to understand this.

"I went to a graduate school in U.S., majoring in mass media at Emerson College in Boston," Kimura, the general manager of the Ryukyu Golden Kings, wrote in a recent e-mail. "At the same time, I covered NBA for Japanese basketball magazines, so that I was able to see what professional sports were really like from both aspects of the game of basketball and the backside of the sports entertainment business.

"After my graduation, I worked for NHK and was a director of sports live programs. I had been thinking of getting people to enjoy sports from the media side. I thought that was one of the most crucial aspects.

News photo
The new logo of Okinawa's first professional basketball team, the Ryukyu Golden Kings, is unveiled at last month's bj-league All-Star Game in Ginowan. ED ODEVEN PHOTO

"However, I have realized that working from the media side does not change things dramatically in Japan. Media can do something from only the outside.

"What I really wanted to do is to change the way sports should be. I mean, in Japan, sports are not for the audience, but more for the players.

"What I had been impressed with in the U.S. were the way sports were enjoyed by people. That is something I can change from only the management side.

"What I really would like to achieve here in Okinawa is to change the position of sports in Japanese society. Basketball is filled with a lot of potential of making a deep impact."

And so, Kimura, 33, switched careers and devoted himself to making this dream become a reality.

This is where Taizo Otsuka, who manages an information technology company, and Kensaku Tominaga, an Okinawan colleague, entered the picture.

Kimura, a Tokyo native, credits them for playing a vital role in this laborious process.

Here's how he describes Otsuka's role:

"He is also crazy about basketball. We met in the States, and we were talking about managing a pro team someday in the future."

And this is what he had to say about Tominaga's passion for hoops:

"He loves the game of basketball and also Okinawa. He wanted to establish a professional basketball team someday in his hometown."

So how did they start this project?

"When we were working together, we did a lot of research," Kimura said. "Then we found Okinawa has great number of people who actually played basketball in school, and also people in Okinawa are exposed to the NBA and NCAA because of Okinawa's history . . . People were able to watch them through TV that came from American (military bases) in Okinawa."

Indeed, TV exposure is a vital element in sustaining a fan base for decades to come.

Having live games in your own backyard, though, is a key ingredient in building a fan base for a new team in a new league.

So the three men worked together on the latter objective.

"We checked the arenas in Okinawa," Kimura said. "We were talking to so many people to obtain financial support. I was like a salesman of a dream.

"I keep telling people how important it would be if Okinawa had a pro sports team."

When the bj-league announced last fall that it would add two expansion teams -- the Ryukyu Golden Kings and the Fukuoka BB Boys -- to begin play in November 2007, Kimura breathed a sigh of relief.

Reflecting on that significant accomplishment, he said, he felt more responsibility than excitement.

And then Kimura returned to work.

"I am in charge of everything," he said without hesitation. "Desk working, meeting people, a lot of discussions, answering media (requests) . . . I work seven days a week (from) 10 (a.m.) to 3 in the morning."

But how does he avoid burnout?

"This is my job, but at the same time, this is not just work, it's fun to work," he added.

But there's still so much for Kimura to do before the Golden Kings play their first game next November.

Above all, two tasks will occupy his time in the coming weeks: He plans to hire a coach by May and will oversee the team's first draft this spring.

The bj-league staged its first-ever All-Star Game on Jan. 27 in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture.

It was by all accounts a glowing success, a chance for the league's Japanese and foreign players to bond with Okinawans and fans that traveled from elsewhere in Japan to the island for the historic event.

And you've got to commend the players for going the extra mile in reaching out to the league's supporters.

Players signed autographs and posed for picture after picture with fans young and old before and after the game, and fans left the arena with big smiles on their faces.

During that weekend's discussions with media members, numerous players, including Tokyo Apache dunk maestro Tony "Get It" Jones, Toyama Grouses star center Jerod Ward and teammate Takanori Goya, a native of Okinawa, spoke in their native tongues about the importance the game had in building legitimacy for the league and giving it a much-needed showcase.

For the Golden Kings, the All-Star Weekend, which also included clinics for area students, a Slam Dunk contest and a 3-Point Shootout, gave them a fantastic opportunity to showcase what fans will begin seeing in the fall: an entertaining product that gets better each year.

"For the Okinawa team, it was priceless gift," Kimura said. "Because of the All-Star Game, people in Okinawa were able to be exposed to the excellence of the bj-league.

"It was just . . . a great opportunity."

He called it a chance "to really introduce the game of the bj-league to the fan in Okinawa. That's the most important thing."

Clearly, Okinawa is an important market for the bj-league. Commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi and Kimura understand this.

In terms of fan interest, where would you rank basketball as a spectator sports in Okinawa, I asked.

"Among the men, you can say baseball," Kimura said. "But, basketball is so popular both (among) men and women. Gathering both (together), I would rank basketball as the No. 1 sport in Okinawa."

And that's one obvious reason why Okinawa deserves a pro basketball team.

Here's another: The Ryukyu Golden Kings, who plan to play most of their home games at the Okinawa Convention Center in Ginowan and Naha City Gym next season, can help create a bond between people living in Okinawa -- the U.S. military personnel, other foreign-born people, as well as Okinawan natives and Japanese who relocated to the southern islands.

"From that aspect, a pro hoops team in Okinawa has unique potential," Kimura said. "We will try to contribute to international relations as I love both countries

"That is one of the things our people would love to achieve."

Kimura and Co. have already had a milestone achievement.

They have convinced the bj-league that Okinawa is a strategic geographic location for the circuit, and in doing so expanded the league greatly.

You can be sure in the chilly weeks of next winter that fans of the Sendai 89ers, for instance, will be ready to hop on a plane to see their team play in sunny Okinawa.



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