This feature appeared in the May 18, 2019, edition of The Japan Times:

With its recent revamp, Japan’s B. League could make the Reiwa Era its own

By Ed Odeven

After decades of stagnation and instability, Japan men’s basketball is finally headed in the right direction.

As the B. League marks the third anniversary since its founding, the nation’s interest in one marquee game on May 11, the last day of its third season, highlighted the progress that the sport has made in a relatively short period of time. As a result, the B. League Championship final symbolizes what this new era represents: a sport governed by unity and a commitment to improving the product at all levels.

To reach this point, bold, painful steps were needed.

What happened?

Japan’s basketball leaders were ordered to discard old plans and competing ideologies and start all over again.

In November 2014, FIBA, basketball’s global governing body, suspended the Japan Basketball Association from international activities due to governance issues.

This crackdown was a result of the JBA’s persistent failure to meet a FIBA ultimatum: a forced merger between the JBA-backed National Basketball League (formerly the JBL, which consisted of corporate-owned teams) and the bj-league, an independent circuit modeled after the local NBA franchise concept that began operations in 2005 with six clubs and expanded each year of its 11-season existence.

Conversely, more than 10 JBL teams, including Isuzu, Daiwa and Sumitomo, ceased operations in the 1990s and early years of the 21st century.

For Japan, the basketball ban was a major embarrassment in the global sports community. Patrick Baumann, the late FIBA secretary-general, issued a thorough explanation at the time about why FIBA cracked down on the JBA.

“FIBA regrets that the situation has reached such a point of no return,” Baumann, who died in 2018, said in a statement. “However, we are convinced that after so many years of warnings and struggle, and for the good of basketball in Japan, it is absolutely time to make important changes to the structures of the JBA and of the domestic competitions in order to fully comply with FIBA’s General Statutes and also to embrace the opportunity that the 2020 Olympic Games will provide to basketball in Japan.”

Revamping the sport

Over the course of many months, Japanese sports and government officials, representatives from the bj-league and NBL, legal experts and FIBA representatives who flew over from Europe met numerous times in Tokyo to develop the framework for a new era. Saburo Kawabuchi, a visionary former J. League chairman and Japan Football Association president, was brought in during a leadership shake-up at the JBA to get the ball rolling. Kawabuchi served as a task force co-chairman along with Ingo Weiss, a FIBA executive.

The B. League’s organizational structure was finalized in 2016, setting the stage for the new league’s first season. It began in the fall of 2016 with 45 teams, with 18 apiece in the first and second divisions, known as B1 and B2, respectively, and nine more in the third division. Relegation and promotion rules were implemented. Among the big changes for the new circuit: one designated primary arena (for 80 percent of a team’s home games) and a name that includes a team’s geographic location instead of its company backing. For example, the Toyota Motors Alvark became known as the Alvark Tokyo.

With the addition of the Gifu Swoops, the third division fielded 10 teams this season. Three more B3 clubs — TryHoop Okayama, Saga Ballooners and Veltex Shizuoka — join the fray next season, increasing the total number of clubs to 49.

Indeed, that’s a ton of teams, but interest in them is steadily growing, with an influx of media outlets, many of which are new or relatively new, now covering the sport on a year-round basis.

On May 11, the B. League concluded its third season with an exciting top-flight final between the reigning champion Alvark and the Chiba Jets Funabashi, who had the best regular-season record (52-8). In a rematch of the 2017-18 championship final, Tokyo, guided by second-year Montenegrin bench boss Luka Pavicevic, defended its title, winning 71-67 at Yokohama Arena. The Jets, who trailed by 19 points at the end of the third quarter, staged a spirited comeback led by regular-season MVP Yuki Togashi but came up short at the end.

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