The following two-part series appeared in The Japan Times in July 2016, just weeks after the bj-league, aka Basketball Japan League completed its 11-season run.
Memories all that remain of bj-league
By Ed Odeven
Six weeks after the bj-league’s final game, it’s now a good time to dust the cobwebs off the memory bank . . .
Hoop Scoop chronicled the highlights and lowlights of the final 10 seasons of the bj-league’s wild 11-year run, and it’s time to unveil a list of memories that will endure as great feats (or favorite memories) in the annals of Japan basketball.
What follows is an incomplete list of Hoop Scoop’s best-of-the-best highlights.
It all starts with legendary big man Jeff Newton’s epic 50-point outburst in the Western Conference final at the Final Four in May 2009. The Indiana University alum’s brilliance carried the Ryukyu Golden Kings past the Osaka Evessa and into the title game for the first time at Ariake Colosseum. The Evessa, three-time defending champions and Newton’s former team, were the league’s first dynasty. But Newton’s dynamic performance that day changed the course of league history, ending the Osaka dynasty and setting the stage for the first of four Ryukyu championships a day later.
Fast forward to Newton’s No. 50 jersey retirement in November 2015. The Golden Kings, recognizing Newton’s special place in team (and Japan basketball) history gave him his special day. Newton who had won his sixth overall title, and third with the Kings in May 2014 in his final pro game, quietly retired months later, and then closed this chapter of his life in grand style in Okinawa City. He exited the big stage as the winningest player in league history.
Longtime Kings assistant coach Keith Richardson explained the significance of the festivities in an interview. “It was very special to bring back someone who has given so much to basketball in Japan, the bj-league and to Okinawa and see them honored in this way,” Richardson told Hoop Scoop. “It was the very least the team could do for Jeff after all he has given to the Kings organization. He created the winning culture in the Kings.”
Closing out the league’s final chapter, do-it-all Ryukyu leader Anthony McHenry proved once again how vital he is to the Kings’ success. His triple-double in the May 15 title game against the Toyama Grouses was a fitting finish. (The bj-league teams now become a part of the B. League, joining NBL and NBDL squads to form the nation’s new unified hoop circuit, for the 2016-17 campaign,)
More than anyone else, diminutive guard Cohey Aoki was the face of the league while suiting up for the Tokyo Apache, Osaka Evessa, Tokyo Cinq Reves and his hometown Rizing Fukuoka. Aoki’s special relationship with fans, his knack for knocking down free throws and big shots, especially with the shot clock running down or in the closing moments of game, is legendary. Most appropriate, Aoki appeared in nine All-Star Games, more than any player in league history (though it’s inexcusable that the league failed to find a place for him in the final All-Star Game in January).
The General. League legend Lynn Washington brought his Indiana mentor Bob Knight’s unquenchable thirst for winning to the Evessa and along with Newton formed the frontcourt backbone of the team’s championship three-peat alongside David Palmer and Matt Lottich, who are now pursuing college coaching opportunities. Washington was a fearless advocate for advancing the game and promoting it here. In addition to the aforementioned championships, Washington’s teams advanced to the Final Four in every one of his six Evessa seasons. ‘Nuff said.
Away from the spotlight during All-Star weekend in January 2011, seeing ageless Kyoto Hannaryz guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and teenage Apache big man Jeremy Tyler, two generations of hoop standouts, speaking during All-Star weekend in Osaka was a unique snapshot of hoop history before my own eyes. (Abdul-Rauf and Tyler’s father were hometown friends from Gulfport, Mississippi.)
Witnessing 236-cm center Sun Ming Ming’s debut with the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix in 2008. The Chinese giant’s inside presence and playful humor added intrigue and fun to the league that season. What’s more, he’s among the tallest humans to ever play the game.
The presence of a rotating cast of foreign coaches, including Joe Bryant, John Neumann, Bob Hill, Bill Cartwright, Zeljko Pavlicevic, Charlie Parker and Bob Nash, brought NBA and international basketball experience to the table. They gave legitimacy to their teams and an endless supply of stories about their days in the game.
The nonstop expansion for more than a decade brought an influx of NCAA Division I and smaller-college talent to Japan. Impact players such as Andy Ellis, Josh Peppers, Bobby St. Preux, Nick Davis, John “Helicopter” Humphrey, Mikey Marshall, Gary Hamilton, Julius Ashby, Lawrence “Trend” Blackledge, Melvin Ely, Michael Parker, Mike Bell, Wendell White, Nile Murry, Reggie Warren, Jeff Parmer, Draelon Burns, Justin Burrell, Verdell Jones III, Richard Roby, Thomas Kennedy, Le’Bryan Nash, among others, gave fans a taste of the big time and provided constant challenges for their Japanese teammates and foes in practices and games.
He emerged as a role player for the Evessa’s first two title teams, then high-energy shooting guard Masashi Joho grew in stature and skills with a fierce determination to excel — and win — during the next nine seasons for the Apache, Shiga Lakestars and Toyama. Joho became the only Japanese to win the regular-season MVP honor (2013-14 season) and helped transform the Grouses into a title contender. Joho’s love for the game was infectious and that shined through in every game.
From a personal standpoint, it was also special to see the genesis of so many firsts in league history, especially the establishment of so many franchises. Seeing the fans’ excitement along the way was neat, too.
Similarly, viewing first-ever regular-season home games for the Akita Northern Happinets, Shiga, Kyoto, Hamamatsu, Yokohama B-Corsairs and Chiba Jets provided colorful drama and a courtside view of history unfolding.
Franchises became a big part of their local communities and not just on game day. The Niigata Albirex BB did their part in the aftermath of a 6.8-magnitude earthquake in July 2007 in Niigata Prefecture. Two days later, the team registered to serve as volunteers in the hard-hit Kasiwazaki City. Said then-coach Masaya Hirose at the time: “What we can do as a professional team in Niigata is give positive energy to the people who suffered in the earthquake.”
That spirited exemplified what many teams exhibited four years later.
After the Great East Japan Earthquake ended the Sendai 89ers’ 2010-11 season, it was a touch of class to see players from that team, including fan favorites Takehiko Shimura and Hikaru Kusaka, donning No. 89 jerseys for the remainder of the season with their temporary new clubs.
Months later, there was a special feeling, a joyous renewal of the Sendai franchise, when then-coach Bob Pierce’s team took the floor on Oct. 29, 2011, at Sendai City Gymnasium before a packed house to see the 89ers face a new local rival, the Iwate Big Bulls. A day before the game, Pierce reflected on how, in a small way, the team was helping to tell the world that Tohoku was on the road to recovery. “We are alive, we’re here, we’re back,” Pierce declared. “Sendai’s back. That’s what we want to show the fans and the world.”
In a related event in my mind that was also special; Seeing the rebuilt train line in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, in March 2013, while heading to cover a Sendai-Osaka game there on a Sunday and conversing with a local train station engineer who revealed, while beaming with pride, he was thrilled to get Cartwright’s autograph the night before.
Another favorite: Seeing rivalries form, such as the fierce Osaka-Ryukyu rivalry, fans interact, local media take pride in reporting on their hometown teams, this columnist traveled to all corners of this country for a decade seeing teams plant the seeds for the sport.
Among the great performances seen in person or written about shortly thereafter, here are a few that must be mentioned: Rizing star Parker’s 53-point, 21-rebound outburst in November 2010 against Takamatsu; Newton’s 40-point, 30-rebound effort Sendai in November 2008; Toyama’s Kirby Lemmons 42-point, 30-board night against the Rizing in October 2009; and Fukushima Firebonds star Le’Bryan Nash’s record 54-point performance on Feb. 28 against the Shinshu Brave Warriors.
Final Four exploits also remain etched in the mind’s eye. Those include Yokohama sharpshooter and captain Masayuki Kabaya’s 35-point championship game masterpiece in May 2013 against the vanquished Rizing; Ryukyu perimeter marksman Ryuichi Kishimoto’s 34-point output, including seven 3s, in the title contest against Akita a year later; and Hamamatsu sparkplug Masahiro Oguchi’s stunning 10-for-14 3-point shooting night in the East final against Niigata in May 2009 a day before the Phoenix’s first of three bj-league titles.
And a playful reminder of the value the press serves for the public was inspiring, too. Let me explain: During the Apache’s 2010-11 season, I attended 11 of the team’s 12 home games at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2. I missed one contest while working on other reporting tasks in the days before the All-Star Game in Osaka. Then, in Osaka, during a news conference, with cameras and notepads and digital recorders surrounding him, Hill, the Eastern Conference coach, sees me getting ready to jot down notes and said, “Where were you the other day?”
It was a public display of humor and also a playful jab at me for not being there to chronicle the Apache.
Point well taken, Bob.
Just as memorable was the across-the-ocean attempts to reach Tyler on draft night in June 2011 after he was selected No. 39 overall by the Charlotte Bobcats and sent to the Golden State Warriors in a cash trade. This reporter, using the sports desk fax machine phone repeatedly called the San Diego night club, where Tyler held a party that night. It was a failed attempt to reach him for comment, but it was exhilarating on deadline in an effort to enrich a story about the lone player in league history to make the jump via the draft from the bj-league to the NBA.
Nonstop growth, inept management were constant problems throughout the bj-league’s 11 seasons
Throughout its rocky 11-season history, mismanagement was often at the heart of the bj-league’s biggest problems.
The league grew so fast (from six to eight to 10 to 12 to 13 to . . . eventually 24 teams this past season (two clubs also folded and another defected), and the league and teams’ office staff turnover was so high, people never really had a chance to grow into their jobs. Or get better at them.
There was zero stability across the board.
Bottom line: It affected the product.
As Basketball Navi scribe Kei Sadayama told Hoop Scoop in February 2011, “Expansion and growing the bj-league are not good moves. . . . If the number of teams increases, unqualified players will also increase.”
Unfortunately, expansion never stopped. The league never had a chance to grow and mature in a common-sense manner.
By the 11th season, the talent was spread too thin across too many teams with too many game officials not experienced or qualified enough to be working at the pro level.
What’s more, the decrease in import players on each team (from five to four to three) created an uneven flow to many games, with the problem compounded by alternating-quarter import quota rules (which changed several times over the years) that hampered the ability of coaches to do their jobs in a sensible, legitimate way.
In May 2009, Tokyo Apache forward Dameion Baker suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the championship game against the Ryukyu Golden Kings at Ariake Colosseum. (What’s more, there wasn’t an ambulance at the arena on stand-by; someone could’ve had a life-threatening injury.)
Baker’s severe injury required surgery and physical rehabilitation. But it turned out that then-team CEO Manabu Saiki’s staff didn’t have medical insurance for Baker. And in a long, drawn-out dispute with Baker, including four face-to-face meetings with team officials, Saiki refused to pay for all of Baker’s medical bills.
Baker returned to his home in North Carolina to complete physical rehab, so he could start working again in the family construction business. Baker said the Apache offered to pay for half of his rehab costs in North Carolina. That promise was broken. His bill totaled $4,500, he told The Japan Times, and received $245 from Tokyo.
If the league had a strong administration, it might have been able to force the Apache to meet its obligations. And if a players’ union had existed and addressed the issue in an aggressive manner to FIBA, basketball’s world governing body, maybe conditions could’ve improved for players who were exploited by some teams.
Another shocking saga: The Osaka Evessa and league office, spearheaded by commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi, forced iconic superstar forward Lynn Washington to retire in April 2012 after he was exonerated of drug charges — suspicion of smuggling about 1 kg of marijuana into Japan — related to his detention by Osaka Prefectural Police that March.
Washington’s wife, Dana, pleaded guilty to drug possession. The package, discovered by customs officials, was addressed to her, according to police reports. Her lawyer showed her California medical marijuana prescription to court officials, this newspaper reported, and she was released from police custody in May 2012 after being detained in late February.
Lynn Washington, a two-time regular-season MVP and two-time All-Star Game MVP, served 18 days in police custody. He never failed a drug test. The Japanese court system found him not guilty, and yet he was denied the right to continue his career here. He brought winning ways to the Niigata Albirex BB in the old JBL, starting in 2000, and helped make the three-time champion Evessa the bj-league’s original dynasty. He was a beloved player throughout the league, too.
Despite due process, the bj-league ignored common decency and refused to give Washington, then 34, a second chance to remain with his team. (Many of the team’s fans refused to forgive the Evessa for this and/or abandoned support of them, basketball insiders told Hoop Scoop.)
Lacking gravitas and necessary experience, the league’s media relations department allowed teams to bully the media. For instance, the Shiga Lakestars did so to Basketball Navi during the 2010-11 season after team CEO/GM Shinsuke Sakai didn’t like an article that contained post-game quotes from Lakestars guard Takamichi Fujiwara that were critical of officiating from a Jan. 15, 2011, contest.
Fujiwara was handed a one-game suspension by the league, and Sakai mulled the possibility of banning Basketball Navi, which provided comprehensive coverage of the entire league, from having access to his team.
Moreover, the Kyoto Hannaryz issued a threat via a league official at halftime of a game to The Japan Times (when this reporter was on deadline in Tokyo, working) during the 2009-10 season, claiming comments made by fired head coach David Benoit after his dismissal were all lies. Actually, this writer accurately reported what Benoit said during a wide-ranging phone conversation. The Hannaryz’s threat to “not allow” coverage of their team failed to come to fruition.
Then, in October 2013, the bj-league issued an unprecedented league-wide ban on The Japan Times that stemmed from my reporting that an informed source said the Kyoto Hannaryz were planning to defect to the rival NBL (the JBL’s successor) for the 2014-15 season. All media access was declared off limits by the league office, but this newspaper’s year-round, in-depth coverage continued.
The ban was lifted at the end of March 2015, after FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann and others were pressured to push the league to lift the ban, and this was at a time when FIBA had handed the Japan Basketball Association a global ban for failing to merge the NBL and bj-league before an October 2014 deadline. (The merger eventually happened, and that’s why the bj-league and NBL joined forces with the NBDL to create the new B. League for the upcoming season.)
Despite the media ban, numerous sources refusing to follow instructions and continued to communicate with The Japan Times. It later became crystal clear, through numerous talks with several league insiders, that sources who weighed in on the original source’s comments would be blackballed by the Hannaryz front office and/or have trouble finding work in Japan pro basketball.
Former Ole Miss scoring sensation John Neumann, a former ABA and NBA player who had coached in Germany, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, China, Saudi Arabia, among other places, before arriving in Japan in 2007 to lead the expansion Rizing Fukuoka, expressed frustration about the team’s ineffective front office. During the Rizing’s inaugural season, he said that he’d “never worked for a basketball team where front office (personnel) didn’t know anything about basketball.”
Several teams had key decisions makers without the necessary skills to properly oversee basketball operations.
And it wasn’t always about keeping costs down. Many teams simply didn’t demonstrate that they valued proven leaders who could establish the foundation for future success.
As a fledgling circuit, the bj-league went out of its way to limit its exposure to the outside world. Its website had limited English information for years (then dropped its link to The Japan Times’ basketball page), and that info was reduced to virtually nothing over its final few seasons.
Prospective coaches and players and agents who wanted to do business with the league routinely inquired about how to reach out to key contacts at the league office and its teams via email, sending those questions repeatedly in emails to Hoop Scoop. Subsequent correspondence to this columnist often showed that coaches, players, agents and others usually didn’t even receive responses from the league office and teams.
Translation: They were wasting their time trying to land jobs in the league.
Longtime coach Brad Greenberg, the former Philadelphia 76ers general manager who drafted Allen Iverson No. 1 in the 1996 NBA Draft, held talks with the Lakestars’ Sakai about filling the team’s coaching vacancy in May 2011. He also inquired about several other coaching posts in the league, according to league sources.
In 2012, accomplished NBA big man Tree Rollins, who played in the NBA from 1977-95 and began his coaching career in 1993 while still playing for the Orlando Magic, also made several inquiries about bj-league coaching opportunities. Before then, Rollins’ extensive coaching career included work as an assistant for the Magic, Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards as well as time as head man for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. (Not surprisingly, nothing materialized; instead, multiple novices in their 20s rose to top jobs in the bj-league.)
In January 2012, veteran swingman Curtis Terry of the Akita Northern Happinets was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting three cans of chuhai, a Japanese alcoholic beverage, from an Akita convenience store, then fleeing to a local restaurant, where the arrest took place. He was let go by the Northern Happinets, whose management apologized profusely in subsequent media appearances.
More bad publicity for the league arrived in April 2014, when then-Fukuoka team president Go Takenaka was among five individuals arrested by Tokyo Metropolitan Police on suspicion of embezzling ¥380 million in a case involving First-Consul. Takenaka had served as president of First-Consul, a Tokyo-based consulting company, before joining the Rizing in 2012. At the time of the arrest, three current and one former company employee were arrested along with Takenaka.
Speaking to The Japan Times, several years ago, several Saitama Broncos players complained about the team’s questionable policies, including, they said, handing out cash in envelopes to players one at a time in the gym instead of using bank accounts for salary distribution. (As a result, former Saitama coach David Benoit, for instance, owed back taxes after his tenure with the team, Hoop Scoop learned.)
The Oita HeatDevils’ financial woes were well publicized throughout the league’s history. The team’s poor attendance contributed greatly to the team’s problems. Simply put, Oita, one of the league’s original six teams, was a bad market after the financial crisis of 2008; the sustained fan interest wasn’t there.
And despite multiple bankruptcies and ownership overhauls — with new companies being created and past debts shoved aside, including vendors who were stiffed of what they were owed, sources said — the HeatDevils’ woes never went away. The league office took over the team on multiple occasions, “saving” it from collapse before another crisis emerged.
During one “Save The HeatDevils” campaign after the 2010-11 season, the team begged for fan donations, seeking to raise the equivalent of $550,000 at the time, on its official website. Oita players and team staff also visited JR Beppu Station and stood outside a local sporting goods store to request donations.
In late November 2012, American stars Matt Lottich, Taj Finger, Wendell White and Cyrus Tate were told the HeatDevils couldn’t afford to pay their salaries and they would be released without receiving what they were owed. Most of the team’s Japanese players would be brought back at reduced salaries of up to 80 percent, it was reported.
Oita’s financial woes became a full-fledged financial crisis that month when the team revealed it didn’t have ¥7 million for its November payroll for 19 individuals (players and staff). When Lottich and his three foreign teammates were dumped by the HeatDevils, without being paid in full, his wife had just given birth to their third child within the previous month, and his entire family was with him in Oita. It was disgraceful, unethical treatment.
Lottich, now the head coach at NCAA Division I Valparaiso University, spoke out about what happened in an exclusive interview with this newspaper during the height of the crisis.
“To use assets of a former company to form a new team, that’s not right,” Lottich said in December 2012
“If you’re bankrupt, you sell your assets . . . but the bj-league is using them (for a new company),” he added.
Despite all of the above, the bj-league could have had a real chance to thrive if each team had a real home and cultivated its fan base by using one arena.
Instead, the opposite was true. Exhibit A, I wrote in October 2012: According to the league’s official guide book, 141 arenas will be used by the league’s 21 teams this season, including a league-high 12 for Gunma’s 26 home games.
For more than a decade, the bj-league failed to truly promote its product to the masses despite nonstop growth. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of this nation’s residents never learned the names of the players and teams.
Lacking the will or the skill to land a major TV deal across the nation — and get game highlights on major news programs on a regular basis— the bj-league was doomed by its own small-minded tactics and ineptitude.
Good riddance. And the welcome end of an era.