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Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010

HOOP SCOOP

Proposed new league will have major obstacles to overcome

But it's time to focus on building a better future for basketball in Japan


To accurately describe what's been going on for several years now in this nation's pro hoop scene, I submit the following analogy:

Ed Odeven

The Japan Basketball League and the bj-league have been traveling in the same direction on identical trains on parallel tracks . . . with no destination in site.

In their own ways, both leagues have felt they know what's best for the future of basketball in this country, while at the same time the Japan Basketball Association has had neither the will nor the skill to make the sport relevant to the masses. The JBA, the sport's governing body here, has also been ill-equipped to deal with the equally vital challenge of how to make the men's national team capable of qualifying for world championships and the Summer Olympics, as Hoop Scoop has detailed extensively in the past.

So, hey, you've probably heard by now there's talk of a "next generation" men's league being planned for 2013. In the meantime, there's talk of games — preseason or regular season — to be played between the JBL (eight teams in its top division) and the bj-league (13 teams this season; 16 teams on tap for the 2010-11 campaign) starting next season. No details have been officially released yet.

The underlying assumption is that a new "top league" will be able to make money, and thus attract more fans, get more commercial sponsors and develop the proper interest needed to gain real air time on TV.

But for five years, the JBL and the bj-league, formed as an alternative to the painfully unprogressive JBL with two breakaway JBL clubs (Saitama Broncos and Niigata Albirex BB) and four new teams in the fall of 2005, have had no incentive to reach an agreement on anything.

Times change. But what evidence is there that in three years the necessary framework will be put in place for a successful new league?

"I think the bj-league should come up with their own proposals for interleague play, merger scenarios, etc., because I think the current conversation favors the status quo of the JBL, which is broken and can only drag down the bj-league," said Shiga Lakestars coach Bob Pierce, who has previously coached the JBL's Hitachi Sunrockers and served as an assistant coach on Japan's men's national team.

"The JBA controls the JBL, but USA Basketball doesn't control the NBA. The NBA works to cooperate with USA Basketball, but still must think of its own needs and success first. If the bj-league gives up control to JBA, it will regret it." The JBA's recent 10-point outline (described in detail in The Japan Times on Feb. 12) for the creation of a new league stresses that it won't be a merger, choosing instead to say this is about "forming a completely new entity." But really, maybe only a small minority believe the new league would feature a strong balance of teams from the two existing pro leagues.

"When people in the JBL talk about merger, one new league, etc., what they are talking about is a few strong, surviving bj-league teams joining the JBL teams, meaning that many, if not most, of the bj-league teams would cease to exist," Pierce said.

"I don't think the bj-league side is thinking about that possibility. But if the JBL is serious about doing something, and I hope they are, then I think that the eight JBL teams, and the 13 (soon to be 16) bj-league teams should sit down and discuss their options, with each team getting an equal vote on the proposals.

"Personally, I don't think the bj-league should be in any hurry. If they just stay the course for the next two to three, or even four years, most of the issues would begin to be clear or would take care of themselves."

Pierce identified three key issues that JBL teams will face for the first time in the future:

1. A salary cap that include all players, not just import players.

2. A draft or method to fairly distribute Japanese players among all teams.

3. Making all players and staff 100 percent professional, eliminating the company employees.

He doesn't hold a very optimistic view about JBL teams' willingness to change.

"The trouble is, no one in the JBL seems to want to go the way of cutting back salaries," Pierce said. "But there's no way for our (bj-league) teams to suddenly increase their budgets either.

"Sometime in 2013 or 2014 we will here about the new proposal for a merger or creation of Major League Basketball in Japan to take place after the 2016 Olympics."

* * * * *

Power forward Lynn Washington, a former Niigata player during its JBL days, who has been a star for the Osaka Evessa since the team joined the bj-league in 2005, is also skeptical about the feasibility of a new league, though he has supported the idea and the need for the bj-league's Japanese players to get a shot at trying out for the national team (to date none has ever been invited to a tryout).

Washington, a two-time bj-league MVP, dismisses the notion held by many in the JBL and in the media that there are no quality bj-league teams. He characterized Aisin Sea Horses star J.R. Sakuragi's recent comments in a Daily Yomiuri column on the JBL's perceived superiority as being inaccurate.

"Honestly speaking, I believe the JBL will learn what type of league this is when the exhibition games start between the two leagues. J.R. is right about how some teams are hard to watch. The top four teams in the West and the top two in the East clearly know how to play," Washington told me.

"The JBL players are overpaid so clearly they might think their league is better. However, if we played against Aisin with the bj-league rules presiding, we will win."

He added: "You know before I talked about the two leagues needing to merge. I am not so sure about that now. After the news about the Toyota callbacks on automobiles and the ongoing (financial) struggles of Mitsubishi (a league-worst 3-27 record through Feb. 14), Toshiba, and Tochigi Brex, why would the bj-league want to merge?

"I think those companies need to see how the bj-league does business with less money and more fan support. After all, it is all about marketing, right?"

* * * * *

Oita HeatDevils bench boss Brian Rowsom is one of three former NBA players who are currently head coaches in the bj-league. John Neumann of the Takamatsu Five Arrows and David Benoit of the Kyoto Hannaryz are the others.

Rowsom, who also played for the JBL's Toshiba club from 1995-98, embraces the opportunity to have the two leagues begin competing against each other.

"I think the JBL's American players know there are very good American players in the bj-league, and combining the two leagues honestly is the best way to go for the future of pro basketball in Japan for the long term," Rowsom told Hoop Scoop.

CONTINUED ON PAGE 2 >>



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