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Japanese Pro Basketball Game: An Interesting Experience

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Interesting. That was the only word that came to mind immediately after the game. Very interesting.

About two months back, while on business in Japan, I went to my first Japanese professional basketball game. The Hitachi SunRockers, currently #3 in the JBL standings, were at home in Shibuya (Tokyo) hosting the top ranked Aisin SeaHorses.

Japanese Crowds are Wild

Before I get into the basketball, I need to spend a minute on the ambiance of the game. This was what made it so interesting. To start, about 10 minutes prior to game time, the announcer came across the P.A. to run through the cheers for the night. The crowd practiced the “De-fense” chant among many others for the next 5 minutes. I could tell immediately we were in for an interesting experience.

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From there, the crowd cheered for the entire game. There was a constant beat or clapping coming over the loudspeaker. The “Go SunRockers” chant is still stuck in my head. It was almost eerie when the whistle blew and silence fell over the crowd.

The crowd would get excited for everything. I remember watching the first substitution and hearing the crowd go wild. I thought for sure the most popular movie star in the country had just suited up to take the court. But no, every substitution was like that. And, from what I could tell, they were cheering for the act of the substitution itself; not a courtesy clap to the player coming off the court.

Mediocre Quality of Play

As far as the basketball goes, it was mediocre at best. I would say probably the equivalent to a bad college Division I team or a good D-II team. The JBL is currently the second-tier league to the BJ League, however talent-wise I am told they are comparable.

The players had been drilled to play as a team and that they did. There is a 24-second shot clock in the JBL, yet they still managed to average at least 7-10 passes per possession. Unfortunately, it did not seem like they were passing to score, but rather just passing to move the ball. While I think it is good to move the ball in order to move the defense, there needs to be an even balance of individual players making moves toward the hoop. Because of this combination, there were many last second shots where the player was heaving up a three-pointer with no hope of going in. They would work the entire clock and settle for an off-balance jumper from a bad shooter.

I found it interesting how poor the shooting was from the Japanese players. In general, the Japanese players were guards with great ball skills. They could dribble and pass, with very few turnovers. They just could not shoot well. A few players did hit some outside shots, but from the form of their shot I concluded they could not have been league leaders from beyond the arc.

The two big Japanese guys on each team were nothing to get excited about.  6′8″ at best and not aggressive, although one of them had pretty good hands.

I also was surprised by the speed of play. They passed the ball around quickly, but the entire shot clock was often used. Also, the defensive aggression was very weak.  I believe there were only two fast-breaks the entire game, which was very disappointing. In fact, the losing team had a total of 6 turnovers. For a league full of short, fast players, I wish they would have been running the court more.

The game consisted of four 10-minute quarters, but the game went fast as there were not many fouls. A total of 11 foul shots were shot, again an indicator of the defensive aggression. I do not mean to say they were lazy on defense. In fact, the off-the-ball defense was very active. It is just that the pressure on the ball was not enough to create steals, blocked shots, or fouls.

Foreign Players on Company Teams

One thing keeping the game stale is that the foreign players had limited court time. There are only 3 foreign players allowed per team in the JBL and only one allowed on the court at the same time. During this game there were only 3 active foreign players (2 others were injured), yet they were probably 3 of the top 4 players on the court. But on the team that had 2 foreign players, only one could play at a time. (One of them was Tyler Smith, who played at Penn State, that I recognized. He graduated the same year as me, 2002, and we – Princeton – played them in the NIT in 2000 and watched them beat North Carolina after UNC beat us in the NCAA’s in 2001.  Best player on the court tonight, but he’s still basically a 6′7″ big man.) That team could have been twice as good with both of them in the game.

I understand the purpose of trying to build the Japanese basketball players by keeping Japanese on the court. However, I think it does now allow the game to grow nationally. In my opinion, there would be more interest among young Japanese to play basketball growing up if they had great teams to cheer for and grow up watching, no matter what nationality of the players. Heck, the majority of the Mavs roster is foreign and Dallas still loves them.

The other strange thing about the team orientation within the JBL league is that the teams are affiliated with companies, not towns. This is a very Japanese way of doing things. I believe the players are actually employees of that company.  I have an issue with this one as well . While company affiliation is probably great for the company marketing and employee morale, I think it reduces the exposure of the team. Hitachi has probably 10-20k employees. Including their families, that makes probably 50k natural fans. Compare that to a small-city team like the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis has a population of almost 700k, all potential fans. There is a reason that the big city markets teams thrive. It’s called “fan base.”

Strange Conclusion

The game was actually a Hitachi blowout through most of the second and third quarters, but the SeaHorses mounted a comeback late in the fourth. They managed to get it within 2 points with 30 seconds to go and had the ball, down 3, with 5 seconds to go. Both times the coach called a timeout and the team came out and did not execute anything productive. I shook my head after both offensive sets.

After the game, everyone shook hands, including the players all shaking the refs hands. Then they lined up under the hoop for the winning Coach’s center court interview. He thanked the fans and talked about how they played together as a team and tried really hard. Then the home team (Hitachi) lined up and bowed and waved to the crowd before actually walking around the entire court and high-fiving the adoring crowd.

Talk about an interesting experience.