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Sunday, April 20, 2008
Sojourner promoting game on and off court
By ED ODEVEN
There are professional athletes in all sports who fit this bill: They are outgoing, passionate about their chosen profession and more than willing to speak their mind about what they think the powers that be can do to improve the sport on levels.
Veteran forward Isaac Sojourner, who plays for the Takamatsu Five Arrows of the bj-league, fits the above description.
Since arriving in Japan in October 1999, Sojourner has been involved in the sport on a variety of levels.
He completed his collegiate career at Hamamatsu University after playing for two U.S. junior colleges. He became an assistant coach for the Saitama Broncos, then joined the team as a player. As a Bronco, he earned the 2003 JBL MVP award.
He's also been actively involved in the nation's streetball culture, too, participating on a team called the Sunday Crew, which has had a weekend presence at Yoyogi Park for many years.
(Sojourner is known by the colorful moniker "Mr. Fury" on this team, comprised mostly of foreigners but some Japanese players, too. Others have equally memorable nicknames — Baby Bro, Speedy G, Brick City, Big Grease, to name a few.)
"The reason we got together was to stay in shape, have a tight network of friends in a foreign country, and at the same time try to teach the Japanese youth — or anybody really that wants to learn basketball — how to play the right way through watching us play," Sojourner said in a recent e-mail.
Sojourner, 32, is a key backup for the Five Arrows, who meet the visiting Rizing Fukuoka in Sunday's Western Conference wild-card game. He played in all 44 regular-season games, averaging 8.1 points per game.
His all-around ability is underscored by these numbers: single-game highs of 21 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocks.
Sojourner isn't afraid to voice his opinion about the sport's growth and growing pains, revealing a side of him that shows just how passionate he is about basketball and doing all he can to make it a major sport here, just like baseball, soccer and sumo.
He said basketball is the "same as it was when I first got here. It's still at its infant stage, and this is like, at least, 40 years in the making.
"Listen, Japanese players need to grow up. In other words, lift weights, take the ball to the basket, and coaches need to cut down on their dependency on foreigners to do all the dirty work.
"Then," he continued, "they will only just start to get people interested in the sport."
Sojourner likes the overall concept behind the bj-league and the quality of play, but said the league has a long ways to go in terms of promoting the sports to the masses.
"Setup-wise, it's the way to go," he said. "Meaning, home and away games and having the league spread out the way it is, is good for the league. However, in its three-year history, it has not made much of an impact on the country."
Simply put, the bj-league needs a bigger presence in the media, especially on TV.
Said Sojourner: "Why no TV deal? And GAORA doesn't count because that is satellite. I have satellite but most people do not; bj-league TV (on the Internet) is a good idea, but it can't be one of the few options for viewers to watch your sport. Plus, the quality is not good at all.
"They have a 'SportsCenter Japan,' yet I have never seen the bj-league or the JBL for that matter on it. Someone in the media department for both leagues is sleeping on his/her job, don't ya agree?"
He has a valid point, and he's spot-on with his assessment of the situation.
In other words, basketball needs more air time on TV, or it will remain a minor sport for the foreseeable future.
To help raise awareness for the sport and increase the fan base in Shikoku, Sojourner established the non-profit Sojo's Foundation.
By doing so, he's taking an active role in getting young students involved in basketball.
"I have always wanted to start something like this, and I knew someday I would have the chance to do so," Sojourner said. "(There's) just the need for something like this in this culture. They, Japanese, have nothing like this that I know of, so this seemed like a good enough time as any."
Sojourner launched a Web site in mid-January to announce the word that Sojo's Foundation now exists.
His efforts will clearly take time and patience.
"I just want to educate the Japanese youth about basketball, through interaction with basketball," he explained.
He hopes to expand Sojo's Foundation and make it a nationwide organization in the future.
"I still do things with my older team, Sunday Crew, in Tokyo," Sojourner said. "In the near future, I would like to open up a summer league all throughout Japan in the major cities and have the championships in Yoyogi to end the summers.
"I think that would be a big hit, if I could get the idea off the ground."
Curious about the inspiration behind setting up the foundation, I asked Sojourner if other athletes or high-profile celebrities gave him guidance or suggestions.
He responded by saying, "I have never really paid much attention to celebrities or athletes when it comes to this type of project, simply because I feel like they just don't try to do enough for people in need. So I don't feel like I can get much from them that I don't already possess in my heart."
But is it helpful for him to be a tall gaikokujin, a man who stands out in the crowd, when trying to raise awareness for the newly established foundation?
"I don't think it plays much of a part," he decided. "Having the right backing, now that will go a long way, which through my friends here in Takamatsu and with my wife's help as well, we hope to get the word out.
"I still believe the word needs to be spread more. We have done a couple of good things so far: the blog I write and the tickets I give out to games.
"Yet I think here is a whole lot more that needs/will be done. As for the response, I wish there was more from the kids. I have always felt that Japanese children need to learn how to speak up for themselves more.
"They get into discussions with me after the games, and act like a cat has got their tongues. Not the kind of dialogue I envisioned when I thought this up. Hopefully in the future the chats will become more lively."
What else has Sojo's Foundation done in its brief existence?
"I have visited a local (mini-basketball) teams a couple of times this year which practices near my home and shown them skills that they can do with their players," he said.
Sojourner, however, urges the Five Arrows to improve the quality of their own school clinics.
"My team from time to time will conduct a clinic here or there, but I felt that it is nowhere near what they should do," he said. "And I don't think they really give them any useful tools to practice in the future."
This much is crystal clear: Basketball runs though Sojourner's veins.
His late uncle, Willie Sojourner, starred in the ABA with the Virginia Squires and New York Nets and was the best man at Dr. J's (Julius Erving's) wedding. And it will always remain a big part of his life here in Japan, where he's settled down as a family man with a Japanese wife and kids.
"If you have something positive to give to someone, it just would be nice to get some help to make the dream a reality," Sojourner concluded.
For Isaac Sojourner, that dream is a prominent future for basketball in his adopted country. It's a worthwhile endeavor.
Visit www.yaglop.jp/glueman for information on Sojo's Foundation.