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Sunday, March 15, 2009

HOOP SCOOP

JBA's archaic ways suffocating basketball's development in Japan


The status quo's got to go.

Ed Odeven

This may sound like the opening remarks in a political speech, but it isn't. This is a basketball tale, and this much is certain: If the topic of discussion is the sorry state of affairs involving men's basketball in Japan, then this can be the only possible conclusion.

It's time for a Plan B to emerge — quickly and sensibly. To do that, however, there needs to be recognition that the old way of doing things won't work in the future.

Unfortunately, the Japan Basketball Association refuses to adapt with the changing times.

On Tuesday, a JBA spokesperson confirmed that no upcoming tryouts are planned for the national team. Intense, full-blown tryouts should be the first official duty of new national team coach David Hobbs.

Instead, it's more of the same.

The JBA-sanctioned Japan Basketball League (JBL) provides all of the players for the national team. The JBL, an eight-team circuit, features a 35-game regular season.

News photo
Victim of politics: Perennial All-Star Cohey Aoki of the Tokyo Apache is just one of the players who are shunned by the Japan Basketball Association due to its refusal to allow bj-league cagers to try out for the national team. TOKYO APACHE

The non-sanctioned (read: conveniently ignored) bj-league, currently in its fourth season, now plays a 52-game schedule. There are 12 teams in the bj-league, and a 13th squad will join the fold next season.

Let's do the math, folks. In the bj-league, there are about 100 Japanese players, athletes who are playing as many as 17 more regular-season games than their JBL counterparts. That's more than half of the games being played in the established, old-school JBL.

And of those 100 players, the JBA's brain trust refuses to understand the value of inviting a few of them to participate in national team workouts, scrimmages, or, heck, even a chance to earn a spot on the national team.

Think of the goodwill that this simple gesture would have for the feuding leagues. Think of the motivation it would have for players in the bj-league to have a chance to earn a spot on the national team. And think of the value that competition would have for players from both leagues.

Since the bj-league began play in the fall of 2005, Osaka Evessa head coach Kensaku Tennichi has been the most successful basketball coach in the country. Tennichi has guided his team to three titles, and his team has a chance to earn a fourth straight title this season. And that's why his opinion ought to matter, even if it doesn't follow the old, tired way of thinking.

Listen to Tennichi's words following a recent Evessa practice:

"If our Japanese guys could go to a tryout and become national team players, that is good for any player, their value as a player should be going up and get a better salary or a better opportunity as a player. That is good for the player and good for the league.

"If you want to create a national team, why do you have limitations to choose players? It should just be open to (all) players. It doesn't matter (if the player) is from the JBL or the bj-league."

FIBA, basketball's world governing body, understands this simple concept. The JBA's stubborn, arrogant (translation: foolish) leaders don't.

In fact, if the JBA's leaders had anything resembling a true plan, they would've used the recent visit of FIBA's top two leaders, president Bob Elphinston and Patrick Baumann, who took separate airplane trips from Australia and Switzerland, respectively, for a Feb. 26 meeting and that day's news conference to present a new, bold plan to the assembled group of reporters.

The plan should've included simple, clear steps to effectively solve the bj-league/JBL impasse. Instead, the JBA leaders provided more of the same, tired message: We are involved in talks, but no deadlines have been set for agreements between the two leagues, JBA leaders stated.

This plan should've stated that both the bj-league and JBL can compete in JBA-sanctioned tournaments (exhibitions, 3-on-3 games, postseason championship tournaments) beginning this spring. It would've been a big step forward, a much-needed sign of progress, even if the bj-league isn't yet a JBA-recognized circuit. After all, every journey requires a first step. And this should be the first step, a necessary first step.

Tokyo Apache point guard Darin Satoshi Maki, who has played for the club since 2005, also realizes that bj-league players should get a chance to prove themselves against their JBL counterparts.

"I don't believe that bj-league players suck," Maki said after Tokyo's March 5 game against the Shiga Lakestars at Komazawa Gymnasium. "I think we have some good players that can make a difference at the tryouts."

Maki, a California native, is one of the top defensive guards in Japan, as evidenced by his inclusion on Asia-basket.com's 2007-08 Ultimate All-Defensive First Team, which included players from both Japanese leagues.

After the aforementioned game against the Lakestars, Tokyo Apache coach Joe Bryant, who has coached here since 2005, was asked about his thoughts on what Hobbs, who was invited to the game but reportedly didn't attend it, would've seen.

"If he was here," Bryant said, "I know he was impressed with Darin's defense and Cohey (Aoki's) fantasy for the game. Cohey made a couple of passes — left hand off the dribble — (and) you can't teach that. That's just something special that Cohey has. So I know that if he was here, he could give Darin Maki and Cohey and (Masashi) Joho a call."

* * * * *

Hobbs is in charge of rebuilding the national team in the foreseeable future. It remains to be seen if he'll actually be allowed to field a truly representative national team, or if JBA officials will only give him permission to conduct workouts, training camps and games with JBL players.

On a related note, it's obvious that Hobbs should go out of his way to convince Link Tochigi Brex point guard Yuta Tabuse, the first Japanese to play in the NBA, to commit to playing for the national team.

Tabuse commands respect from his peers and his involvement on the national team would send the proper message to the other players: We must make the national team better, starting right now.

Hobbs, who has mentored numerous future NBA players during the course of his lengthy career as a college coach in the United States, should also take another bold step and reach out to Columbia University senior sharpshooter K.J. Matsui, who wrapped up his collegiate career on March 7.

It's the notion here that there's not a logical reason for the Tokyo native to be denied the opportunity to compete for a spot on the national team.

Matsui, a 188-cm and 82-kg performer, has the physical skills and experience of playing against numerous top-flight NCAA clubs (105 total games) to give the national team a boost of fresh energy, solid outside shooting, and a much-needed different perspective that comes from playing ball overseas.

Again: If something isn't broken, you don't need to fix it. But, on the other hand . . .

Let's review the facts: The last time Japan's men's basketball team competed in the Olympics was in the 1976 Montreal Games. Unless a miracle is in the works, Japan will fail to earn a spot to the 2012 London Games.

Long-term failure requires a new system to be implemented, new ways of thinking, and leadership that is willing to grasp this basic concept.



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