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Saturday, Aug. 11, 2007

HOOP SCOOP

Albirex stand tall for Niigata


"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.''

Ed Odeven

— Mark Twain

These are trying times for the residents of Niigata Prefecture, times when collective courage matters most.

They are coping with the aftermath of the July 16 magnitude 6.8 earthquake that killed 11 people, injured 2,000 more and "damaged or destroyed more than 10,000 houses," Kyodo News recently reported.

Naoto Kosuge, a 25-year-old shooting guard for the Niigata Albirex BB of the bj-league, is from Kashiwazaki City, Niigata Prefecture.

Kosuge's family home sustained damage in the earthquake.

Immediately, a normal offseason changed for Albirex coach Masaya Hirose and his team.

"After the earthquake, we canceled practice for one week," Hirose said by phone from Niigata City.

The team needed a break. It was the appropriate decision.

And so two days after the earthquake, which was centered in Kashiwazaki City (about 65 km from Niigata City), Hirose organized a different type of team outing. He was joined by Albirex players Takamichi Fujiwara, Kimitake Sato, Daiki Terashita, Yuichi Ikeda and Naoya Sugiyama, as well as assistant coaches Kazuaki Shimoji and Fujitaka Hiraoka on a trip to Kashiwazaki City.

"Two days after the earthquake, we traveled there three days in a row," Hirose said through an interpreter. "We went to Kashiwazaki City in the morning on that very first day to the volunteer center and we registered as volunteers."

The coach admitted that the volunteer efforts weren't organized yet.

But that didn't discourage the Albirex, the bj-league's runnerup squad in the league's inaugural season (2005-06), from finding ways to assist in the relief efforts.

It started at No. 9's residency.

"We went to help Kosuge's family repair his house," the coach told me.

And what did Hirose see when he arrived at the All-Star's home?

"The outside of the house was OK," he observed, "but inside was all messed up, so we helped clean the house up."

Six players, including Kosuge, and three coaches share a big assist for that project.

"On the second day, we visited evacuation places and played with kids and gave away some jerseys," Hirose continued.

"On the third day, we visited very little evacuation places where the Self-Defense Forces couldn't bring food because cars were too big to go there. So we brought bread and juice and talked to old people there."

The Albirex played two games in Kashiwazaki City during the 2006-07 season. (Most regular-season games are held at Toki Messe, the Niigata Convention Center.)

By all accounts, it was a memorable time for the team in its "home" away from home.

Hirose didn't forget this.

"People there did a lot for us," he said, carefully choosing his words. "They welcomed us warmly last season, so not only (myself) but the whole team wanted to do something.

"We didn't do anything special, but we did some little things," the coach added humbly.

Kosuge made The Japan Times' All-Japanese Team this past season.

He started all 40 regular-season games for the Albirex and led the team in minutes played (1,240). He scored 8.2 points per game. He made 33.7 percent of his 3-point shots and was successful on 56.7 percent of his attempts from inside the arc. And he led the team in minutes played (1,240).

Now, Kosuge leads the team in motivation.

He returned to Niigata City one week after the earthquake, with basketball shoes and shorts and a desire to return to work.

"The fact that he came back one week after the earthquake really showed the team that we can do more for Kosuge and the people of Kashiwazaki City," said Hirose. "It was brave action and behavior."

Clearly, Kosuge's outlook inspired Hirose.

"What we can do as a professional team in Niigata is give positive energy to the people who suffered in the earthquake," Hirose said.

How can this be accomplished?

"By playing hard, getting wins and showing a good game," the coach said.

Being a professional coach is not always about wins and losses and endorsement deals. Sometimes it's about giving speeches on leadership at dinner banquets, or concocting new offensive plays for the upcoming season.

There are times, however, when a coach's role shifts: from game-time tactician to a quasi-social worker.

"I talked to old people at evacuation places," Hirose revealed, "and they said they are worried about summer, because it is going to be hot and they lost their houses and don't have places to live."

Remember this: Hirose is a basketball coach, not a government leader in Niigata. But his common-sense approach to coping with this natural disaster includes equal doses of compassion and determination.

"I want to do something for them," he said bluntly.

The team will follow its leader's desire.

The Albirex will be actively involved in charitable fundraising efforts in the coming months. A special page on the team's official Japanese-language Web site, www.albirex.com, is planned to promote these events.

"Lots of people have been helping our charity campaign," Hirose said, citing that the team brings collection cans to its numerous clinics and this has been met with positive responses.

The team has held around 20 public events, mostly basketball clinics, since the earthquake. That is why the Albirex's name is out there and their commendable efforts are in the spotlight.

For the people in Niigata, the July earthquake was a reminder that life can drastically change unexpectedly at any moment.

"As you know, we had a big, big earthquake (three years ago)," Hirose said, "but that earthquake's damage still remains in Niigata Prefecture. It takes time to get everything back . . . two years, three years.

"But we need to do things to get ordinary life back. This is just the beginning, and not the end for the team and all the people in Kashiwazaki City and Kariwamura."

This much is clear: The Albirex are a symbol of courage and determination for Niigata Prefecture residents . . . one clinic at a time . . . one dribble at a time . . . one game at a time.



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