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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

SPORTS SCOPE

Commissioner Kawachi guiding bj-league in right direction


Two seasons down and a bright future ahead. That's the view from here on the bj-league.

Jack Gallagher

An enthusiastic crowd of 8,019 attended the title game at Tokyo's Ariake Colosseum on April 22 and helped bring the curtain down on the second season of Japan's first pro hoop circuit.

With the Osaka Evessa having locked up their second straight title with a victory over the Takamatsu Five Arrows, it is time to reflect on what the league has accomplished and the road ahead.

Having started with six teams in the inaugural 2005-06 season, the bj-league added new franchises in Takamatsu and Toyama this season. Normally, expansion teams in any sport struggle, but the Five Arrows defied history this year with their run to the final.

Attendance rose during the bj-league's second campaign by more than 400 spectators per game to an average of 2,486. Nearly 400,000 (397,788) fans came through the turnstiles in the past six months to watch teams play. A very encouraging sign for the fledgling circuit.

It was quite evident that the level of play in the bj-league also saw a significant boost this season. This is important because it adds credibility and will help attract better players in the future.

"It's a great, competitive league," said Oita's Andy Ellis, a bj-league Best Five selection for his play this season, during the playoff weekend.

News photo
Haruyuki Ishibashi, captain of bj-league champion Osaka Evessa, presents Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with an autographed panel from the team on April 24 in Tokyo. KYODO PHOTO

"It compares well to the leagues I played in in Europe."

Ellis, who previously suited up professionally in Milan, Istanbul and Ankara, was clearly enthusiastic about the bj-league's future.

"It's only the second year. I think it is going to keep growing," said Ellis, a former Texas Tech player who was second in the league in scoring (25.1 points per game) this season.

Most importantly, the league's profile was clearly raised this season with increased television and media exposure. The attention even echoed across the halls of politics, as the Evessa met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on April 24 after locking up their second title.

Perhaps the most interesting development of the past six months occurred when the OSG Phoenix team, based in Aichi Prefecture, from the corporate Japan Basketball League expressed frustration with the older league's refusal to become a truly professional entity, and said it was attempting to defect to the bj-league.

It must have been music to commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi's ears, coming as it did in the runup to the playoff weekend.

The venerable JBL has been around since 1967, but its setup is clearly flawed when it comes to promoting the future of the sport in Japan.

Relying on corporations is a relic of the past. Evidence of this lies in the number of companies that have closed down their sports teams in the last decade.

But as we so often see in this country, there is a real problem with letting go of the way things have always been done.

A few months after the bj-league announced its formation, the JBL said it would also turn professional. However, in time, it quietly backed away from this promise.

The JBL is closely associated with JABBA, the sport's governing body in Japan, and both have done their best to ignore the existence of the bj-league since its inception.

Last summer, when Japan hosted the FIBA World Championship, which brought together 24 nations, JABBA, which set up the local organizing committee, could have reached out to the bj-league for help in promoting this major event.

But, alas, that would have been too much to expect from those stuck in another time. The bj-league, which clearly understands the importance of promotion, was never contacted, nor was a bj-league player named to Japan's national team.

Here was a golden opportunity to try and grow the game in Japan, but despite this pride could not be put aside. The end result was that many of the arenas had empty seats in the opening round. It was disappointing, to say the least.

JABBA may have shut out the bj-league from the marquee event, but the chickens came home to roost when the final accounting was done. It has been disclosed that the World Championship lost some 1.3 billion yen, with half of that cost divided between JABBA and Hakuhodo, which ran the local organizing committee.

As if those figures are not staggering enough, here's another one to consider: JABBA had nine years to get prepared for the worlds. That's right, FIBA awarded the 2006 event to Japan in 1997.

Nine years and they still could not get it right. What an utter disgrace.

The bj-league will increase to 10 teams next season with the addition of expansion franchises in Okinawa and Fukuoka. The plan is to increase to 12 teams for the 2008-09 season, and many cities have expressed interest in joining.

On the eve of the playoff weekend, Kawachi addressed several issues in a state of the league discussion with the media. Among the topics addressed:

— Creating two five-team divisions: "Maybe from next season, or the following season when we have 12 teams, we should divide into Eastern and Western (divisions) and have the champions of each play. We have that vision now."

— Team venues: "We have so many objectives right now. But the biggest one is that each team doesn't have its own arena. While teams have their own boosters and fan clubs, they have only small gymnasiums that are limited in capacity. For teams like Niigata or Osaka, that is not enough."

— Number of foreign players: "I think the fact that Japanese are playing on the court itself is great. I am hoping to see someone make a team of all five players being foreigners and Japanese players challenge them."

— Playoffs: "We would like to have the playoffs be a home-and-away format if we have 12 teams. But if a team reserves an arena and cancels it later, it will not only be a problem about money (but also about trust)."

The fact that the bj-league has crucial issues it must confront in the coming months comes as no surprise. What matters most is that it recognizes them and is willing to address them head on.

Kawachi, who plans to eventually move the league from its current 40-game regular season to an 80-game schedule, is a visionary who understands the sport. He has done a tremendous job in getting the league off the ground.

He hasn't received much support from the basketball establishment here to this point, but based on its track record, that may be a good thing.



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