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Sunday, June 21, 2009

HOOP SCOOP

Injured Baker in limbo over cash dispute with Apache


First in a two-part series

Dameion Baker sits in his Tokyo apartment and waits for his cell phone to ring. The clock ticks — hour after hour, day after day — as he waits for a resolution to a traumatizing experience that has frustrated him beyond belief.

Ed Odeven

The Tokyo Apache forward ruptured his Achilles tendon on May 17 in the bj-league championship game against the Ryukyu Golden Kings at Ariake Colosseum. He had a team-high 20 points in the game, a game the Apache lost. Two days later, he underwent surgery at a local hospital.

Since then, Baker has endured the agonizingly slow process of hammering out an agreement with the Apache over the financial terms for his recovery from the injury. He wants to begin physical rehabilitation as soon as possible in his hometown of Jacksonville, N.C., and he wants to play again next season.

Complicating matters is the fact that Baker didn't have health insurance this season, his fourth as a member of the Apache. (He joined the squad in February, averaged 12.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game in 21 regular-season games, including eight starts, to help the team reach the bj-league title game for the second straight season. What's more, Apache coach Joe Bryant has praised Baker for his versatility, defensive ability and overall basketball smarts.)

"I'm really in a bad situation," Baker said in a recent telephone interview. "I need to bring it to someone's attention.

"I need someone to notice or act upon it. I tried to talk to the commissioner (Toshimitsu Kawachi), but the league keeps saying he's in meetings here or there. I don't know what I can do except call the U.S. Embassy next."

Baker, who didn't have an agent represent him this season, said the estimated cost of his hospital bill and his planned rehab will cost about $12,000. He said the team told him on several occasions it will pay for his $6,000 hospital bill, including surgery. But when it comes to rehab costs, he said the team has offered to pay around 40 percent of the bill, which he described as completely unacceptable and unreasonable to him.

News photo
Adding insult to injury: Tokyo Apache forward Dameion Baker (33), seen here being carried off the floor by teammates after tearing his Achilles tendon in the bj-league title game against Ryukyu last month, is still trying to get the team to pay for his surgery and rehabilitation. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Responding to this reporter's question about the specific wording in his contract related to medical-related costs, Baker recited the paragraph that spells it out clearly:

"If the player sustains an illness or an injury due directly to the performance of the agreement and a doctor designed by the team company deems that the treatment of leave is necessary for the player, the team company shall bear the expenses necessary for the treatment up to the amount covered by the applicable insurance policy."

As of June 11, Baker had already had four face-to-face meetings with team officials, including three at his apartment due to the difficulty he's had getting around — he's using crutches — after his surgery.

Baker said the team wants him to pay for the rehab in North Carolina and be reimbursed for the bill at a later time. And that's become a point of contention during these negotiations.

"I don't have $7,000 to pay for rehab for my leg," he said bluntly. "I have a house, I have a daughter at home. During the summer I work to take care of my family."

Baker works in a family construction business with his father in the offseason.

"I'm in a really bad situation and I've been trying my hardest to talk to them. They keep turning a blind eye to me and acting like I don't exist," he said.

Over the past week, he has continued to wait patiently for a resolution, but sees no quick end to this issue.

"I'm at the point where I need to try everything and anything," he said.

"It's sad that I need to go through this after being with the team for four years . . . and then me being such an important player on the team.

"I would think they would hold anything in consideration.

"They really don't care."

* * * * *
Kusakabe, the bj-league's managing director, told The Japan Times on Friday that he expects the Apache and Baker to settle the issue in the coming days.

Kusakabe said he believes Baker and team will divide the cost of the rehab, adding that he's optimist that talks are about to be finalized on the matter.

In addition, Kusakabe said the Apache misunderstood the bj-league's rule regarding what a team is required to pay for an injured player's treatment, but he stated that a team must pay 100 percent of the bill. The fact that Baker's contract ended on May 31 created additional complications in this situation, because he hasn't started rehab yet.

News photo
Feeling betrayed: Dameion Baker has been a key contributor for the Tokyo Apache during each of the team's four seasons. He can't understand why the club won't fulfill its financial obligation for his surgery and rehabilitation. KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

Akihiro Ejima, a bj-league spokesman, explained the league's insurance and related regulations in a conversation with The Japan Times on Thursday, but didn't specifically give an opinion on if Baker's case has been handled in a reasonable manner.

"Under the bj-league policy, each player has to take out the National Health Insurance (NHI, or Kokumin Kenko Hoken) and insurance should be paid by the player," Ejima said. "The players with the NHI still have to pay a portion of the expense (for foreigners, it is 30 percent), but the teams they belong to pay for that.

"The foreigners who have not stayed in Japan long enough, cannot take out the NHI, but even in that case, the teams have to pay all the expenses of the necessary surgery and treatment. The teams have to pay all the expenses for the treatment necessary to recover well enough for an ordinary life."

Ejima, however, acknowledged that the fourth-year league doesn't have a clear-cut definition about what actually falls under the "treatment" category.

"In Baker's case, the problem is whether his rehab is included in treatment or not," he said. "It is difficult to judge if the rehab should be regarded as treatment. Is needle treatment a rehab? How about rehab for old injuries? It is also a problem where a player does rehab — here in Japan or back in his country.

"The bj-league's guidelines decide the treatment should be done under the team's doctor(s) or doctor(s) the team designates. If the treatment is done under those doctors, the team has to pay all the expenses."

In the NBA, there is no gray area when it comes to the cost of rehab, no ambiguous wording in the contract.

The NBA player's standard contract stipulates that "teams are responsible for all rehab costs as long as the injuries happened during sanctioned basketball activities," Peter Steber, a league spokesman, told The Japan Times.

Other leagues have different policies. According to a Nippon Professional Baseball public relations spokesperson, it's up to individual teams to set policies for insurance for their foreign players.

* * * * *

Apache CEO Manabu Saiki said Baker's case is a time-sensitive issue, a pressing matter, but stated that it cannot be resolved rapidly.

"For surgery, the team is going to pay 100 percent," Saiki said through an interpreter during a June 13 interview at the team's offices in Tokyo's Minato Ward. "In terms of rehab, we need to discuss the range in terms of location and price. The issue of the rehab we just started discussing recently. That's why it takes so long."

He added: "We have to solve (the issue) of which hospital for rehab; that was a very rare case. That wasn't clear with the contract; that's why we are discussing it and trying to (fulfill) his desire. He wants to rehab in the U.S."

Saiki admitted having lawyers involved in this case has delayed it from being resolved quickly, but expects it to be settled soon.

Baker didn't qualify for health insurance under Japan's national plan, Saiki said, because he had a short-term contract. A team manager went to Tokyo's Minato Ward office to apply for insurance for him but the application was denied, he said.

"It was no mistake. We were not lazy or something like that," Saiki said. "According to Japanese law, a foreigner needs to be more than six months in Japan if a foreigner wants to get social insurance in Japan. . . . This case is kind of a rare case."

The Apache's official version of the story about how/if a foreigner can get insurance differs from that of others.

On Thursday, a Tokyo Labor Consultation Center worker said it is possible for a foreigner to obtain health insurance coverage, starting on the first day of a job, even if the individual's short-term contract is only for four months. (The Tokyo Employment Service Center for Foreigners specifies on its Web site, however, that foreign workers usually need to be residents of Japan for a period of one year or longer to join the National Health Insurance plan.)

American journalist Robert Whiting, a longtime Japan resident and author of several best-selling books, elaborated on the issue.

"You have to establish residency to get Kokumin (Kenko) Hoken," he said, referring to the National Health Insurance plan. "You have to have an alien registration card, set up residency in a ward, which will then issue you a health card, charging you monthly fees depending on your income.

"I don't see why a basketball player who comes to Japan to play professionally cannot immediately do this — go directly to the ward office, get his alien registration card . . . and then get his health card."

Pressed to offer a clear-cut team policy on the subject, Saiki said he realizes the need for a stronger team policy in the future, which includes the possibility of purchasing private insurance for players under short-term contracts.

"Yes, the team will consider and find out the best way to solve the issue," Saiki said.

In the future, he said, it should be unacceptable for any Apache player not to be insured. "I think it is too risky . . . and the team would find an appropriate way for next season in terms of this issue," he added.

* * * * *

The majority of the bj-league's American players have left Japan and returned to their hometowns, but Baker remains in Tokyo. It's not by choice, but out of necessity.

During a lengthy phone conversation on Tuesday evening, Baker said he still hadn't seen an official written proposal from the team for his three-month rehabilitation schedule (two to three times a week), leaving him to wonder why there's no apparent sense of urgency from team officials.

"You would think with the bj-league being a professional league they would act professionally," he said.

"I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place," he added, pointing out that the team has asked him to leave his apartment (the lease expired last month). In fact, he's had his bags packed for weeks, understanding fully that he could be told to leave at any moment.

Furthermore, the team has told him he's obligated to pay for his extra time spent at his apartment since the lease expired around May 25, according to Baker. Well, he argued, the reason he's remained at the apartment is because he's waiting to finish official team business, i.e., finalize his rehab plans with his lawyer and the team.

"I just really hope something happens sooner rather than later," Baker said.

But a bitter sense of reality has left a lingering memory in Baker's mind over this entire ordeal.

He said the hours and hours of meetings and phone calls with team officials have not produced any tangible results.

For Baker, it seems that the team is trying to turn this issue into a never-ending project.

Here's how he described what's occurred in meetings with Saiki and other team representatives:

"At the meeting he would never come to a conclusion. He would say, 'OK, I understand you' and everything. But he would always say I have to talk to my lawyer and then we will get back to you in a day or so.

"So when he says that, (I think) he actually understands where I'm coming from, so I think that he would actually help me out with the situation. But then the next day I didn't hear anything, and the next day the same thing. And then I go to set up another meeting with him about the issue."

What's Baker's conclusion?

"This is bad for business," he said. "I've never felt so disrespected.

"Right now I am at the point where I just want to settle it and go home."

Staff writers Hiroshi Ikezawa and Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this article.



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