Jan. 30, 2007


All-Star game in Okinawa proves a slam dunk


Published in The Japan Times

GINOWAN, Okinawa Pref. — Never underestimate the impact of a dream.

Dreams are a vital element of our soul’s compass, of our innermost desires. Dreams offer some substance to our to-do lists, even if we don’t jot down those dreams next to the staples of our grocery shopping lists on a regular basis.

Saturday’s inaugural bj-league All-Star game provided a public forum for the realization of commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi’s dream.

Okinawans young and old joyfully shared this dream with him. They reveled in the chance to be a part of something historic, something positive and, by golly, something fun.

You saw it in the eyes of everyone who was there — even hours before the game’s 4:30 p.m. tipoff at Ginowan Municipal Gymnasium.

You saw teenage break-dancers meticulously working on the moves they’d perform hours later during their upbeat show.

You saw elementary school students waiting patiently in line with their brothers, sisters and parents, clutching basketballs and notebooks they would ask to be autographed hours later.

You saw the antsy, yet animated Nishihara High School marching band members share a collective excitement as they counted down the minutes till they would share the same stage as their nation’s pro basketball stars.

You saw a colorful mix of Japan’s favorite NBA heroes — Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson jerseys — competing for your attention as you glanced at the long lines of fans sporting Osaka Evessa hats, Takamatsu Five Arrows T-shirts and, of course, Takanori Goya’s now-famous Toyama Grouses No. 1 jersey.

And then the game was played. It was a fast, well-paced game and all 20 bj-league All-Stars appeared in the contest. Center Julius Ashby of the Five Arrows and gravity-defying John “Helicopter” Humphrey of the Tokyo Apache played 32 minutes apiece to lead the way.

But Goya’s 26 minutes probably were the most appreciated.

Okinawa’s hoop fortunes received a positive jolt last spring when Goya was selected as the league’s No. 1 draft pick.

After the game — a performance he should be proud of (19 points, nine assists, four rebounds, two steals) — Goya reminisced about growing up in Okinawa and seeing the Japan National Team come to his beloved island for a game. He said that it was someday his dream to play basketball at that level.

Then he said the formation of the bj-league has greatly expanded the opportunity for the next generation of Japanese boys.

When asked about the expansion Okinawa Golden Kings joining the league next year, Goya said it’ll be a wonderful chance for the youngsters to have a chance to see the league’s players.

“I hope they (pursue) their dream,” he said through an interpreter. “I hope they are inspired to become basketball players, too.”

Clearly, Goya has embraced becoming a role model.

Clearly, he’s already made a positive impact on the league. And it’s not all about thunderous dunks, slick passes or smooth jumpers.

Goya is becoming one of the sport’s top ambassadors in Japan. He is an icon-in-the-making.

Fans roared with delight whenever he got the ball in Saturday’s game, which was won by Goya’s team, the East, 126-97 over the West squad. Goya’s dunks in the fourth quarter were cheered almost as wildly by the players (a nice show of class by the West All-Stars for recognizing and appreciating Goya’s following) as the fans.

In the hotel lobby on Saturday morning before breakfast, tourists uttered “sugoi” time and again while discussing the fact that a bj-league team will begin competition next fall. Similar statements were expressed by patrons and workers at an Okinawan eatery later that evening.

On Sunday afternoon, I left Naha City and took a 90-minute bus ride north to Onna Village, just up the road from Moon Beach. I stopped off at Yachimun Cafe Yushibin, where two artists were working and conversing quietly in the back of a shop filled with one of Okinawa’s most interesting hand-crafted art collections.

I chatted with the cafe owner’s wife, a former guard on a girls high school team in Nagasaki, while drinking a cup of coffee.

The kind, vivacious woman said Goya is immensely popular among young people today. (By the way, he’s got a cool Web site, go-ya.tv/.)

Approximately 1,600 km from the league’s Tokyo office, the bj-league planted the seeds for a successful future in Okinawa, cultivating a connection to the fans by doing things the right way.

Saturday’s action-packed day included a hoops clinic for Okinawa youth, the 3-Point Shootout, the Slam Dunk Contest, the All-Star Game and a nice blend of pageantry (local bands, local cheerleaders, local students all getting court time).

The bj-league deserves credit for working tremendously hard to make sure everyone left Ginowan Municipal Gymnasium feeling happy. And they did.

The mission was accomplished as emphatically as when MJ drove the lane unguarded and unleashed a mesmerizing jam.

In other words, the bj-league’s historic 2007 All-Star Game will be remembered this way:

A slam dunk.