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Friday, Sept. 17, 2010

HOOP SCOOP

Apache facing tough start with extended road trip


The bj-league's sixth season begins on Oct. 16, but the Tokyo Apache's first home game isn't until Jan. 6 at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.

Ed Odeven

This is no joke.

But it's ludicrous that the league would permit this to occur.

Clearly, there needs to be changes made in how the circuit handles game operations. Call it exerting authority, ensuring quality control or whatever you want, but it's a necessary step.

The league should require that all teams have to play a minimum of four home games in their first 10 contests — barring a natural disaster, a health crisis or another catastrophic event, that is.

Why?

Well, for starters, as a season gets under way, fans deserve a chance to see a team play its home games on a regular basis. That way, a team can remain relevant in its home community and the surrounding areas and have a fighting chance to get consistent media coverage, which is absolutely necessary for every team in this young league, especially one in Japan's financial, government and entertainment capital.

In the case of the Apache, however, a completely unbalanced schedule is on tap for the 2010-11 season. The team will play its first 12 games away from Tokyo. That's nearly half of its 26 road contests in a 52-game season from the get-go.

That's absurd.

To be fair, the Apache have made several well-thought-out moves — progressive moves — since Evolution Capital Management, an American-owned global investment firm, purchased the team in June, and the timing of the sale has no doubt made it difficult to properly prepare for the coming season.

Consider:

• They hired Bob Hill, the first former NBA bench boss to take a job in the bj-league.

• They signed Robert Swift, a 24-year-old center with NBA experience and Japanese heritage, and teen phenom Jeremy Tyler, a legitimate NBA prospect.

• Last week, they wrapped up a grueling weeklong training camp at the state-of-the-art Integrated Athletic Development complex in Dallas.

• They secured Yoyogi No. 2 as their exclusive home venue for 2011, a good move in principle considering some teams used as many as nine arenas last season, which destroys any chance of having home-court advantage.

But for all of the good moves the Apache have made, this home scheduling mess is the same as taking two giant steps backward.

As has been the case with other topics about the league's day-to-day operations, league spokesman Akihiro Ejima did not respond to Hoop Scoop's inquiry about this issue.

In a news release posted on the league website this week Commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi issued a statement acknowledging the difficulty of the matter, but didn't reveal any specific details about what was discussed between the team and the league.

Responding to an e-mail inquiry about the situation, the Apache's new president, Chris Hetherington, didn't criticize the league's handling of this scheduling and venue issue. Instead, he's keeping a positive approach as the team moves forward with preparations for the season. And I can't blame him. He wants to build lasting relationships with the league and other teams' officials.

Back to the schedule: The Apache will play against the Sendai 89ers, the defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (in two cities in Nagano Prefecture), the Saitama Broncos and the Akita Northern Happinets in their first four road series of the season, starting on Oct. 23.

Then, on Dec. 11-12, they'll travel to face the Niigata Albirex BB in their first series of the month, followed by out-of-town series against Saitama (again) on Christmas Day and the next day.

Tokyo is scheduled to play four games in each of the season's first three months and then 10 — more than twice as many (another unreasonable scheduling quirk) — in January, including eight home games in the month.

Is that fair to the league's other teams?

No.

Tokyo's Jan. 6-9 schedule features back-to-back-to-back-to-back games — yes, you've read that correctly: games on four consecutive days — against the Oita HeatDevils and the Shimane Susanoo Magic at Yoyogi.

News photo
Road warriors: Tokyo Apache fans will have to wait until January to see Cohey Aoki and his teammates in action at home due to scheduling issues. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

All told, the Apache will have 10 January games in a 21-day stretch, and 10 games in 16 days in late March through early April. This is unreasonable.

I asked several veteran sports observers if they had ever heard of a pro basketball team having four regular-season contests scheduled in four straight days.

None of them could recall this ever happening. Neither could I.

"That's crazy talk for a pro team," Paul Coro, the Phoenix Suns' beat writer for The Arizona Republic, told Hoop Scoop. "The only time the NBA even played three in a row was the lockout-shortened year (1998-99) because they were trying to fit 50 games into a three-month slot."

Tokyo, one of the world's most heavily populated metropolitan areas, has dozens of high school and college gymnasiums. One or more of those gyms ought to be used for some Tokyo Apache games this season in October, November and December. That would be a better alternative than the way the schedule is currently written.

"The vision for the Tokyo Apache is centered around high-level basketball, world-class entertainment, exceptional hospitality and community involvement," said Hetherington, a former NFL fullback. "Everything we do is based on our long-term commitment to our vision and to promote the league. We are very proud to have Yoyogi No. 2 as the home of the Tokyo Apache and we are excited to provide a stable, consistent experience for our passionate and loyal fans.

"We chose Yoyogi No. 2 as it is a great venue to showcase our vision of basketball entertainment and our league. Our goal is to have a large, diverse fan base and to have a nice balance of weekday and weekend games so everyone has a chance to enjoy the games."

Fair enough, and, yes, Hetherington has the right idea in mind. But the league still has a duty to step in and ensure that all teams have a schedule that isn't one-sided for home or road assignments over a long period of time.

"The league has been helpful to the maximum extent they could without showing a bias," Hetherington said. "We are very happy with the way the league has handled the entire matter. There are real issues that face the league and it is the teams' responsibility to work well together to address those issues given the budget constraints.

"Teams change schedules, play in different arenas, etc. to help one another as best they can. Again, everything we do and every decision we make is in the best interest of the league and to do our part to help the growth of the bj-league."

The Yoyogi National Gymnasium complex hosts a number of major sporting events throughout the year, including JBL and WJBL games, badminton, table tennis, volleyball and gymnastics competitions and the recent World Judo Championships. And it's booked nearly every day between now and the end of November, for instance.

Indeed, there's no magic formula for freeing up hours for gym use. Which is why the Apache need a league-mandated Plan B.

So here's hoping the team and the league can come up with a more favorable schedule next season, not just for the Apache but for all teams.

Anything less should be unacceptable. After all, this is a professional sports league, not a traveling circus.



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