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Sunday, March 20, 2011

HOOP SCOOP

Actions of Apache, Broncos unacceptable


It's understandable that the Sendai 89ers, whose home region was devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, won't continue play this season. But the Tokyo Apache and Saitama Broncos, Sendai's Eastern Conference rivals in the bj-league, appear to have not thought things through or come up with an acceptable Plan B to salvage their season if it's possible to do so.

Ed Odeven

There are various reactions to the individual decisions by Saitama, which has been one of the league's worst run teams since Day One and by all accounts is operated by a notoriously cheap front office, and Tokyo to pull the plug on their 2010-11 seasons. This decision was officially announced by the league during a Thursday news conference.

Scarcity of electricity at venues has been cited as one factor. The uncertainty about the immediate dangers of nuclear radiation is another. (But wouldn't this have been the proper thing to do: Choose to have a wait-and-see-approach about an epic environmental disaster instead of deciding in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear plant's crisis that it was impossible or inappropriate to continue the season?)

Regarding the first issue, if electricity wasn't available to stage games within Kanto, why is it that Central League baseball teams, including the Yomiuri Giants, Yokohama BayStars and Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who play at stadiums that consume far more electricity than in a smaller gymnasium, are still planning to begin their seasons on March 29, a few days later than originally planned?

And if running electricity at two gyms was such a problem, couldn't the league have demanded or found a way for the Apache and Broncos to share a gym, possibly in Kawasaki, Kamakura, Odawara, Yokohama, or a number of other reasonably close locales and hold doubleheaders for the remaining home games this spring?

Is the fear of losing money in the coming weeks a bigger part of the equation than either team will reveal, privately or publicly?

As one league source put it: "Our team president is convinced that Tokyo quit because they were running out of money."

(The Apache had planned to travel by bus for games against the Toyama Grouses on Saturday and Sunday after using the shinkansen for a number of other road trips this season, a source pointed out.)

* * * * *

Furthermore, why didn't the bj-league office issue a statement 24-48 hours after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, making things clear for all in the league?

Something with an authoritative tone that stated, "These are extraordinarily difficulty times and we don't know yet if or when we feel right about resuming the season. Therefore, we need to take some time to properly assess the situation." The league should have also said this: "We will not play any games until at least two weeks have passed."

And it should've done that in both English and Japanese on its website, giving all teams, as well as their players, families and agents a greater sense of unity in a time of crisis.

Instead, fear and confusion created a situation where a mass exodus of foreigners was almost guaranteed.

What looks like individual team agendas at Tokyo and Saitama will likely damage the league's reputation. And now Bob Hill, the first former NBA head coach in this league, who capably guided Tokyo to 20 wins in 34 games, may be finished in Japan, and other big-time coaches, whose very presence here is great — and needed — for the sport, may think twice about working for a league which appears time after time to have no direction, no leadership and no backbone.

"Yes, both these teams look silly to me, but the biggest problem is the league office," a longtime league insider said. "They could have been better in leading this situation to a better landing. What I mean is, if the league had better control over Tokyo, would they let players walk out before the decision was made official?"

"Why do the players in Tokyo get to leave the country, when Tokyo is NOT the epicenter of the earthquake, not even close to where the tsunami happened?"

The source believes the league office needs to take the blame based on its overall incompetence and general uselessness.

"I worked at the league office for two years," the source added. "But I don't know what they are doing, and I don't know if their minds are well enough to make good decisions.

"It is a total disgrace."

And it's not surprising if one connects the dots. Saitama president/GM Toshihiko Narita's club has had one trait since it joined the bj-league in 2005: a revolving door of personnel and dozens more losses than wins. Sad, but true.

Again: the league looks powerless regarding the fate of its two Kanto clubs.

"Of course they look spineless," the source said. "Narita stressed that he wanted his team out. Since Saitama and Niigata are the original two teams that started the league (as a breakaway circuit from the JBL in 2005), Narita gets his wishes granted more than any other team in the league."

What we see, then, is the image of a 16-team league that resembles the United States before it became a nation: 13 independent colonies.

"This decision has so many question marks to it, which comes from a lack of leadership. The team and the league are not on the same (page)," the source added. "Some owners have started discussing about the league without the league office, because of their financial difficulties and etc."

There's an old adage — united we stand, divided we fall — that could spell out the crisis the bj-league will likely face in the future. Now, Pandora's box has been opened and there's a precedent for teams to abandon the league before clear, rational decisions are made by the league office.

"The situation is not only disappointing, it's disingenuous," said a league business partner who asked to remain anonymous. "It's unfair to the fans who have been abandoned by the Apache and the Broncos. "It's unfair to the Japanese players on those teams."

Could both teams have asked the league to reduce their schedule and give them a break for a few weeks to see how things played out?

Probably.

Shouldn't both teams have had a chief representative at Thursday's news conference, sitting next to commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi and been forced to answer questions in detail about this unprecedented situation, which sees both teams opting to not play their remaining originally scheduled games (30 combined contests)?

Absolutely.

Instead, the league takes the brunt of the blow, speaking on both teams' behalf.

"It's unfair to the Japanese players on those teams, who have been abandoned by their selfish foreign teammates," the league business partner said. "And it's unfair to the business partners, who have been abandoned by the league itself."

* * * * *

Tokyo Apache forward Reina Itakura, who joined the club before the start of the 2009-10 season, summed up his feelings of regret in a Facebook post on Friday.

"(For our team), it was officially announced the suspension of activities from the league this season," he wrote. "I may never be (with) the same members to play basketball anymore. It is really sad."

Itakura expresses pride in working on a daily basis with his teammates toward the same goal: to win. "I'm very grateful," he said.

His immediate future, along with fellow Japanese standouts, such as Cohey Aoki, Kensuke Tanaka, Jumpei Nakama, is a question mark. But the team, with or without Hill at the helm, could take steps to include the same nucleus of players for next season. A lot of that will depend on Tokyo's team executives.

Apache owner Michael Lerch was asked to comment on his team's decision and if there was any truth to the perception held by more than a handful of skeptics that his team suspended operations to save money, but he declined to respond to any specifics. Lerch pointed to the U.S. State Department's recent statements about the Fukushima nuclear plant as a factor. (The team, though, has made a commitment to fundraising efforts, as stated on its website.)

Aoki, meanwhile, in a number of tweets and online posts, expressed sadness and disappointment about the fate of his team's season, knowing that all the team has built — at least for now — vanished in the blink of any eye.



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