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Sunday, Sep. 25, 2011

HOOP SCOOP

Problems plague every level of game


Without drastic changes in the way it operates — and stuck with a mentality that is out of date with current reality — the Japan Basketball Association (JBA) will continue to be a deterrent to success and progress in men's and boys basketball at all levels.

ED ODEVEN

The latest embarrassment — Japan's 86-67 defeat to South Korea in the FIBA Asia Championship quarterfinals on Friday in Wuhan, China, a game South Korea led from start to finish, only two days after China led from start to finish against Thomas Wisman's club — is a reminder that Japan often faces an uphill (impossible) battle before the contest even begins.

Japan has failed to qualify for the Olympics again; the last time it did was for the 1976 Montreal Summer Games.

And this is true across the board in a sport that could, and should, have the potential for much better success at the national, regional and international levels.

Consider: By adding 14 pro teams since the six-team bj-league began in 2005, there's been a dramatic rise in opportunities for foreign players and coaches to help the sport grow here, while also giving chances for more Japanese to satisfy their ambition to become pro athletes.

Which doesn't mean, however, that the sport will experience a major upgrade in performance. Simply opening the door and letting imports fill roster spots and coaching vacancies is only a small part of the equation.

Over the years the bj-league has tried to reach out to the NBA and USA Basketball to form partnerships. In fact, commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi has had contact with the NBA's international division, but there's been little to show for it.

Or as one hoop insider said, underlining the problem, "Too bad the JBA won't get on board and try some new things."

So, in reality, without the JBA's backing and FIBA connections, the bj-league's communiques with NBA officials have had little, if any, noticeable impact to date.

"Unfortunately, the dream of partnering with the NBA is more fool's gold than anything else," Sendai 89ers coach Bob Pierce told Hoop Scoop recently. "Certainly, the NBA could provide players, coaches, even referees, but the cost is enormous. They won't volunteer their time, and they want to travel and stay first class, as they do in the NBA.

"So it takes big sponsors to cover the cost of any event, which is why NBA Japan has ceased to exist. Even NBA China last year was very slow because no sponsors wanted to spend money."

But who says NBA personnel have to visit Japan to help the sport make significant improvements here?

News photo
Disappointment: The Japan men's national team's failures in recent years, including the ongoing FIBA Asia Championship, are directly tied to deeply rooted flaws in how the game is organized from top to bottom. KYODO PHOTO

Can't the JBA have a long-term initiative to send a large number of players, coaches, support staff and game officials to the United States — and possibly Europe — to gain valuable experience?

Here's a direct message for former Prime Minister Taro Aso, the JBA's head honcho:

"The JBA could use some of their resources to send more players and coaches to play or study overseas," Pierce said. "The fact that so few speak English, though, is a real problem. That's one area that lower-level associations and coaches really need to be concerned about, that their young players can communicate in English."

FIBA's latest figures posted online state that there are 326,0227 licensed male basketball players in Japan, as well as 271,687 females, 32,939 basketball clubs and 3,000,000 unlicensed players.

That's an awful lot of players who could play a role in helping Japan resurrect its image on the international basketball scene. Japan is 33rd in the latest FIBA men's rankings.

The Blue Samurai, Japan's men's soccer team, is 15th in the world, according to FIFA, while Japan is the two-time defending World Baseball Classic champion.

Sure, size matters in basketball — perhaps more so than other team sports — but speed and agility and toughness are as important, too, and Japan has overcome its relatively small physical stature in other team sports (Nadeshiko Japan, for example) to achieve success at the international level.

There's no denying the fact that Japan's conservative nature does not help it make improvements in basketball. Real changes are needed and that's the first crisis that must be solved.

"Most Japanese basketball problems are systemic," one longtime hoop insider said. "Unless you change the system, in a country resistant to change, nothing will improve."

So where does one begin to make changes?

It starts at the bottom, where a player's formative years are crucial to his development.

"Mini basketball is the foundation, but it mostly exists so the coaches can win tournaments," the source said. "It's not a truly developmental level. For example, many youth leagues in the U.S. are very age specific, limit the number per team, prohibit full-court pressure — for all or most of the game — only allow man-to-man defense, or limited zone, and often require that everyone plays two quarters per game, or something similar.

"Mini basketball in Japan, however, consists of large numbers per team, a big gap in ages, second-graders on the same team as sixth-graders, so while they practice a lot, many kids never actually play in a game, and because almost everything is tournament style, the coaches always play the best players to try to win, the marginal players get little or no playing time, and pity the inexperienced team that has to face the full-court press."

Truth be told, this lousy setup is familiar to players at the higher levels, too. "It becomes the same thing in junior high and high school, even college," the source said. "Whereas a U.S. high school might have four teams — freshman, sophomore, JV, varsity — a school in Japan has one team. So many players practice, but never play in a real game.

"When this happens at every level, mini basketball, junior high, high school, and college, it's easy to see that many players who might have had potential are lost along the way. Even the good players are often a couple of years behind their American or European counterparts at the same age just in terms of experience and playing time.

"I could go on and on about the level of coaching at the lower levels, the lack of baskets that prevent players from practicing individual skills, the fact that good young players aren't encouraged to go study and play abroad, the fact that the year-round schedule and tournament schedules prevent almost all players from even going to a basketball camp in the U.S. to acquire new skills and knowledge."

Again, remember this: "A few NBA players or coaches coming to Japan won't fix all of that. I'm all for their coming here, but who will pay?

"And there are probably more cost-effective ways to improve things anyway," the source concluded.

This is a primer for how the JBA can make drastic changes that will trigger success.

But will the big wigs embrace any or all of these suggestions?

Don't hold your breath.



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