Basketball: Japan’s World Cup Success Result of Hard-Won Reforms
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Basketball: Japan’s World Cup Success Result of Hard-Won Reforms

In winning three games at the recent Basketball World Cup and qualifying for the Olympics as a non-host for the first time since the 1976 Montreal Games, the Japanese men’s national team overcame a history of underachievement tied to the sport’s mismanagement in the country.

Asian basketball, let alone the rest of the world, had been too high a hurdle for Japan’s men, who finished a record-low 10th at the 2009 continental championships, before sweeping reforms to the sport led to the establishment of the B-League in 2016.

Governing body FIBA had banned Japan from men’s and women’s international competition in 2014 after the Japan Basketball Association failed to meet an ultimatum to merge the country’s two feuding men’s leagues, one fully professional, and the other involving corporate teams.

Tapped to oversee the merger, Saburo Kawabuchi, the inaugural chairman of football’s J-League, took on the same role at the JBA and resolved the deadlock.

Former Japan international Takehiko Orimo, 53, who played until 49 at Levanga Hokkaido, experienced the change firsthand.

“(Basketball) become a viable profession and players’ fitness, self-awareness, everything changed,” Orimo said of the new league, which soon began to attract talent from other nations. “The level has gone up decisively.”

Outstanding performances at the World Cup in Okinawa from B-League players Yuki Kawamura against Finland and Makoto Hiejima against Venezuela were a visible demonstration of the domestic league’s quality.

Young Japanese players had long dreamed about the NBA, meanwhile, but it was not until point guard Yuta Tabuse’s short stint in 2004 with the Phoenix Suns that a player from the country competed in the world’s best league.

The wait for another Japanese NBA player was a long one but the emergence of Yuta Watanabe, who joined the Memphis Grizzlies after leaving George Washington University in 2018, and Rui Hachimura, drafted by the Washington Wizards out of Gonzaga University the following year, has raised expectations for Japanese basketball.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Hachimura opted not to take part in his home World Cup, but Watanabe, now of the Suns, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln guard Keisei Tominaga showed they are comfortable competing against the world’s best.

“They have the experience of playing on the world stage and have the information (of the opposition),” said 51-year-old former Japan player Takuya Kita. “I believe that will make other players feel like ‘we can do it too.'”

The success in Okinawa marked a revival for Japan’s men’s team under coach Tom Hovasse, who guided the women’s national team to silver at the Tokyo Olympics.

Tabuse, still playing for the B-League’s Utsunomiya Brex at 42, spoke before the World Cup about changing Japan’s mindset from “hoping to play against the world” to “winning against it.” NBA swingman Watanabe echoed his sentiment, stating all of Japanese basketball’s ups and downs have led to the breakthrough.

“We’ve finally been rewarded,” he said.

Source : Kyodo News