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Sunday, April 19, 2009

HOOP SCOOP

A plea to address pro basketball's future in Japan


Dear Prime Minister Aso,

Ed Odeven

I realize you're a busy man. I know you're an important man. Your time is devoted to many urgent matters.

Economic issues and national security are never easy subjects to handle, but they are an integral part of your current agenda. To a lesser extent, the Japan Basketball Association's future is also under your watchful eye.

As president of Japan's basketball governing body, you can exert great influence over the direction taken by the JBA's inner circle in the next several years.

You can steer the organization in the right direction and help transform professional basketball from a minor sport to a major sport here.

Look, the JBA is in shambles, begging for leadership to solve its identity crisis. And clearly, the mind-numbing impasse that exists between the old-school Japan Basketball League and the new-school bj-league won't go away anytime soon. Both leagues have their own way of doing things, but neither way is right for the future of the sport here.

In short, there needs to be a middle way, a compromise.

Sure, there can be talks between officials from both leagues, but there needs to be a sense of urgency here to reach a formal agreement and normalize relations between the leagues as soon as possible.

And yes, I've heard whispers that bj-league teams might be invited to play in the Emperor's Cup tournament next winter, but no such official announcement has been made.

News photo
Steady performer: Sendai 89ers point guard Hikaru Kusaka, who has 129 assists and 44 turnovers entering this weekend, cannot compete for a spot on the national team because he plays in the bj-league. All of the bj-league's players face the same predicament. KAZ NAGATSUKA

There was a golden opportunity to make such an announcement in February, when FIBA president Bob Elphinston and FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann were in Tokyo for meetings with JBA officials. But it comes as no surprise there were no positive developments at the press conference, an event when it was the most ideal time for them.

* * * * *

The bj-league took a bold, necessary step in 2005, when the Broncos, the Evessa and the Albirex opted to leave the JBL and form a new six-team league, the nation's first professional league.

As you know, Commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi has shown brave leadership in guiding the bj-league since Day One. A former national team coach, Kawachi, the face of the bj-league, has changed the tone of the conversation, putting his own stamp on this nation's hoop culture and creating a blueprint for the future of the sport here.

Kawachi and the bj-league should be commended and praised for what they've done. It took great courage.

Instead, his league is shunned, disrespected and ignored. What other conclusion can there be when the recently announced 22-man national team roster includes zero bj-league players, players from a league with 12 teams (it expands to 13 teams in 2009-10), and none of them can even earn a chance to try out for the national team?

Remember this, sir: Every professional athlete deserves a chance to compete for the national team in their own country — sooner, not later.

In other words, it's time to sanction the bj-league, time to recognize it as a part of the JBA.

* * * * *

Clearly, the JBL's business model — corporate league — was a relic of this nation's past and it was time for Japan to have a pro hoop league that modeled itself, in some ways at least, after the NBA, Nippon Professional Baseball and the J. League in terms of how they operate their franchises.

Kawachi understood he would face resistance to real change — creation of a pro league, not a quasi-pro/semi-pro league — for years unless he took the reins and forged a new path.

That path has been a bumpy one for the bj-league, especially for its players. Ultimately, players want a shot to prove they are good enough to play for the national team and to compete and excel against other national teams.

It's a big deal to win a league championship, but it's a bigger deal to have a chance to represent one's own country in an international competition.

Need proof? Just ask any of the players from Japan's World Baseball Classic title-winning teams.

This brings us to the present time. New national team coach David Hobbs, an American who has been the head coach at the University of Alabama and worked at Kentucky, is currently overseeing the team's first weeks of training in preparation for summer competition.

Hobbs' insights, perspectives and opinions ought to be published in Japan, a country where three former NBA players (Joe Bryant, Kobe's dad, coaches the Tokyo Apache; David Benoit coaches the Saitama Broncos; and John Neumann coaches the Rizing Fukuoka) are employed in prominent roles on bj-league teams.

That day, however, may be a long way off for The Japan Times. Recently, a JBA official made this declaration before this newspaper would be granted an interview with Hobbs: We must see a copy of your story before it is published.

The answer, of course, was no. Basketball associations have no business serving as censors; it's their job to build winning teams and promote the success of the sport at all levels.

Guess what?

The JBA has stooped to a new low, and this comes from an organization with a remarkable capacity for ineptitude. Under the direction of the JBA and Hakuhodo, the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan lost ¥1.3 billion.

* * * * *

Let's talk about the bj-league for a moment, sir. Here are a few of the guys, all of whom are in their prime, who are losing a chance to provide healthy competition for the national team, guys who'll play up to 17 more regular-season games this season than their JBL counterparts. Their statistical contributions are — and should remain — unacceptable to ignore.

Consider:

• On April 11, Ryukyu Golden Kings shooting guard Shigeyuki Kinjo scored 35 points in an overtime victory over the Takamatsu Five Arrows.

• Golden Kings point guard Naoto Takushi flirted with a quadruple-double — a quadruple-double! — on Nov. 8, finishing with eight points, eight rebounds, nine assists and 10 steals against Takamatsu.

That game, in a nutshell, showcased the broad range of skills that the 27-year-old Takushi possesses, and served as a vital reminder that he ought to get a shot at competing against the JBL's top players.

• On April 5, Five Arrows sharpshooter Yu Okada made 9 of 13 3-point attempts and scored 29 points against the Oita HeatDevils.

In early November, he had a 32-point game, including 6-for-8 from 3-point range, against the Osaka Evessa, the three-time defending league champion.

• On March 28, Niigata Albirex BB small forward Yuichi Ikeda put 32 points on the board against the Saitama Broncos. He's had 32 double-digit scoring outings this season while averaging 12.7 ppg through April 12.

• Albirex guard Akitomo Takeno, who's only 23, is averaging 13.1 ppg. This kid can flat-out shoot, sir. He's made 40.8 percent of his 3-point shots and 90.6 percent of his free throws. He's ready for the challenge of taking his game to the next level.

• Tokyo Apache guard Cohey Aoki, who plays much bigger than his small stature (165 cm) excels at getting to the foul line and making his free throws (159-for-174, or 91.4 percent) to go along with 13.5 ppg. With 646 points in 1,343 minutes, Aoki is a productive, efficient scorer who maximizes his time on the floor.

• Sendai 89ers guards Kenichi Takahashi, Takehiko Shimura and Hikaru Kusaka are smarty, steady floor leaders and rarely turn the ball over. Takahashi has 173 assists and 72 turnovers in 1,358 minutes; Shimura has 157 assists and 41 turnovers in 1,058 minutes; and Kusaka has 129 assists and 44 turnovers in 901 minutes. All told, these players have demonstrated the knack to take care of the basketball with remarkable consistency.

• Five Arrows guard Kazuyuki Nakagawa, a veteran of the American Basketball Association and the USBL, has been an impressive performer since making his season debut on Jan. 17, averaging 13.4 ppg, shooting 41 percent from 3-point range and 91.8 percent from the charity stripe, dishing out 80 assists and making 52 steals in 24 games.

* * * * *

Sir, competition makes athletes hungry. They welcome the chance to prove they are good players. Inclusion rather than exclusion should be the national team's trademark. (And that's why Hobbs should be a regular visitors at both JBL and bj-league games. Sadly, he hasn't become a regular fixture at bj-league games yet.)

You are a logical man, sir, and therefore you realize that if a nation has 20 teams which are considered top-level teams (12 bj-league squads and eight JBL squads) and players from 60 percent of these teams are denied the right to compete on the national team there can be only one proper term to describe this situation: farcical.

Sir, you have the power to end this nonsense this summer.

It's time to set a strict deadline and demand closure.

I propose that you order top officials of the JBA, bj-league and JBL to sit down in June or July for a three-day summit, a time in which there will be a series of steps taken, starting immediately, to establish a new national pro league within the next five years.

The new proposed league, utilizing one set of playing rules, would consist of two conferences, the JBL and the bj-league.

In the abstract, think of the differences as akin to baseball's designated hitter/non-DH leagues. So, yeah, the bj-league can keep using its SportCourt and the JBL can continue to stage games on traditional hardwood floors.

But they'll both be under the direction of the JBA, and they'll both be required to meet in a limited number of interleague games as well as in the playoffs. And all teams will play the same number of games — 50 seems to be a good number at this point, with incremental increases to reach the NBA model of an 82-game season.

In addition, new expansion teams can be granted to each conference in the future, based on ownership standards set by both conferences for new teams. But each conference must have an even number of teams for scheduling purposes.

In the future, starting in 2010, there should be one national draft, involving JBL and bj-league teams. And both leagues ought to work quickly to create a lower-tier development league, possibly involving the JBL2 teams that presently exist.

TV contracts, revenue sharing, salary caps and other pertinent issues need to be addressed, but let's get the ball rolling. That's something we can agree is absolutely necessary.

Thank you for your time, sir.

Sincerely,

A concerned citizen



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