This in-depth column appears on the JAPAN Forward website.
By Ed Odeven
The stretch of days before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami is etched in my mind’s eye with crystal-clear clarity.
In addition, observing how Japan’s residents rallied around one another to begin the process of rebuilding provided a crash course in this nation’s most deeply engraved values. Kizuna, which refers to the bond or connections between people, was selected as the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society’s 2011 Kanji of the Year. It perfectly encapsulates how the sports world came together to support one another.
For me, March 2011 was punctuated by a whirlwind of activity, including Honoo Hamaguchi’s final game as Sendai 8ers head coach and the final game in Tokyo Apache history. Massive amounts of correspondence via cellphone, text messages, emails and Facebook updates and messenger exchanges also marked those days as I connected with several hundred people to notify them that I was OK after the 3.11 disasters.
My round-the-clock communiques also involved piecing together the whereabouts of the Japan’s pro basketball team’s players and staff as part of my reporting duties for my former employer, The Japan Times. On March 11, the 89ers were en route to Niigata Prefecture for a weekend series against the Niigata Albirex BB, taking a break at a rest stop when the largest earthquake of our lifetime struck.
Players, fans and acquaintances and others deeply connected to Japan’s close-knit basketball circles shed light on the knowns and the unknowns about the 89ers after the Magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Tohoku at 2:46 p.m. on the second Friday of the month. It was an instant ー and repeated ー reminder for days on end about kizuna.
But before that occurred, my 3.11 afternoon began like many others…
I had settled into my seat on the newspaper’s sports desk around 2 p.m. for the evening shift. Before the expected busy deadline work began, though, there was time to exchange a few text messages with Osaka Evessa superstar Lynn Washington, whose sarcastic missives about the now-defunct bj-league’s happenings were a welcome distraction. Lynn, a former Indiana University player under legendary coach Bob Knight, and I talked and texted frequently about the rapid growth of the bj-league and the players, coaches and personalities surrounding it.
Fueled by expansion and an infusion of new talent, the 2010-11 bj-league season brought great intrigue, giving the basketball circuit 16 teams, including the brand-new Akita Northern Happinets. That campaign also carried greater significance with the arrival of the league’s first former NBA head coach (Bob Hill) as the Apache bench boss.
The Northern Happinets and Apache converged for a two-game series at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 on March 9-10, 2011. Akita’s double-overtime, 100-98 win in the opener included a spectacular performance by rookie guard Sek Henry, who scored 19 of his 42 points in the two overtimes. The Apache exacted revenge on the visitors a day later, winning 94-80. Hill’s club, which included 2011 NBA Draft pick Jeremy Tyler, improved to 20-14 with the win.
The Apache, blessed with a deep, talented roster and championship potential, never played another game. Tokyo’s American owner, Michael Lerch, suspended operations after 3.11 and didn’t allocate the necessary funds to field a team for the 2011-12 season.
As for the 89ers, I was also on hand for longtime coach Hamaguchi’s last game at the helm, but of course didn’t know it at the time. And it involved a banner performance in Kasukabe, Saitama Prefecture. Sendai rookie standout Mac Hopson owned the spotlight in the fourth quarter, making 12 of 14 free throws in the final period, and finishing with a dazzling 40-point, nine-assist stat line in a 95-86 victory over the Saitama Broncos on March 6. For the 89ers (24-12), the win was their second in as many days over the Broncos and boosted their playoff aspirations.
Days later, word came from Sendai forward Mike Bell and others about the team’s scary experience at a roadside rest stop.
“We were just leaving Sendai to go to Niigata,” Bell told me. “After about 10 minutes, we stopped somewhere to eat and that’s where we were when the earthquake hit. Half of the team was in the restaurant eating and some of us were on the bus. I was on the bus as well.
“We all experienced four earthquakes the day before and it felt like one of those at first, but then the intensity kept getting stronger and stronger. I was reading at the time, but it felt like the bus was going to tip over, so I got off the bus with my coach [Hamaguchi] and trainer [Yuichi Kitagawa] and just watched everything that was going on in disbelief.”
The trip to Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, was expected to take about 4 hours. Instead, it took more than 11 hours.
In an interview the next day, Bell described the journey after the initial earthquake this way:
“We got back on the highway and had seen many aftereffects of the quake, including cracks on the highway forcing us to slow down and go over them very slowly as if they were speed bumps. We also saw many people standing out of cracked houses and many other things.”
The 89ers spent the night in Nagaoka before returning to Sendai, which was near the epicenter of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Their primary home gym, Sendai City Gymnasium, was heavily damaged by the earthquake (more on the 89ers’ revival below). Another nearby arena in Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture, which served as the site for the 2010 bj-league All-Star Game, became a morgue in the immediate aftermath of the 3.11 disasters.
The full story is published here: [ODDS and EVENS] 10th Anniversary of 3.11 a Big Reminder of Unifying Power of Sports | JAPAN Forward (japan-forward.com)