Finishing Ninth, and the Heat Witnessed in the Philippines

131001a

Finishing Ninth, and the Heat Witnessed in the Philippines
The 27th FIBA ASIA CHAMPIONSHIP took place in MANILA, PHILIPPINES from August 1st – August 11th.
This is the real deal. If you want a chance to open the door leading to the top of the world, you have to make it to the Final 4. Anything less, whether 5th place or 16th, is all the same.
There are 15 teams fighting for the top 3 spots leading to the 2014 FIBA World Cup (Lebanon was disqualified by the FIBA right before the competition began). The winner of the 28th ASIA CHAMPIONSHIP earns the right to play in the Rio Olympics, while the runner-up and second runner-up will move on to the last test against other teams from around the world, with the goal of making their way to the Olympics.
From the Final 4, everything is on the line. Win, and you advance to the final decisive match. Lose, and you move on to the 3rd-4th place match, fighting over the last vacancy at the World Cup. The match ups of the Final 4 are the ultimate battle, and for those who know, games leading up to the Final 4 are merely practice scrimmages.
The ASIA CHAMPIONSHIP is the only tournament where every country in Asia gathers their best of the best. The FIBA Asia Cup, where Japan finished 2nd, and the William Jones Cup in Taipei, are mostly for youth development and feeling out the competition. In that sense, it is safe to say there is no real learning experience until you put yourself in position in the Final 4 of the ASIA CHAMPIONSHIP. And suddenly, everything is at stake.
Teams that fail to advance to the Final 4, or teams playing in ranking games after missing their chance to play in the decisive knock out tournament, will take out their injury-nursing players and rest their main stars on the bench more often due to the tough game schedule and because taking any further risk is pointless. That’s why I say finishing 5th or below is all the same.
Japan has fallen to 9th, but that’s nothing new. After 1997, when they secured 2nd place to earn their right to compete in the World Basketball Tournament (now known as the World Cup), Japan has never played a Final 4 game in the ASIA CHAMPIONSHIP. That’s a long, 16-year history of being far away from the real competition.

After losing the opening game, there was no fire left in the Japanese National team

There are so many things one could blame, but leaving the techniques and stats to further analysis by the experts, and just speaking as one fan in the arena, I could never feel the passion. It’s not like they gave up; it’s not like they weren’t playing hard. Even in comparison to the other countries, I saw no significant difference in skills. But the passion and desire that each player brought, as an individual and as a collective unit, never surpassed our opponents.
It is said that Japan’s strength is in the speed of the game we play, but a team like Iran with 218cm center Hamed Hadadi had more fast breaks.
The Philippines, who surprised everyone by finishing 2nd in the competition, has an average size of 192.83cm, three cm below Japan’s 195.75cm. All three of their point guards were only 176cm tall, but dived into the painted area and grabbed rebounds.
Chinese-Taipei had an even smaller line-up, averaging 190.92cm. But if a shot was made, the whole bench erupted to celebrate, and on defense, they were screaming their lungs out. For that, they upset China to make it into the Final 4. In this game, having a height advantage is big, but it’s no use unless you have the desire to win. A lot of teams in the tournament slapped the ball before in-bounding it or slapped each other’s hands, making a noise that reverberated across the arena. Every action was intended to motivate each other, with the team energy lifting up and feeding itself. And fans could feel it in the air. In Japan’s opening game, I saw teammates encouraging each other to a certain extent, but after Qatar flipped the scale in the 4th quarter, that spirit was never to be seen again.Except for Keijuro Matsui, Atsuya Ota, Kosuke Takeuchi, Ryota Sakurai, JR Sakuragi, this was the first Asia Championship for 7 of the members on the Japan National team. If they had made it to the Final 4, no doubt it would have been a great breakthrough and a huge confidence builder. But failing to move on to the knock-out tournament, losing 5th or 6th place by a hair and finishing 9th was a good lesson in reality. It shows how vast the world competition is.

To build on this, we need HC Kimikazu Suzuki to stay

“If we – coaching staff and players all together – don’t take this seriously, the situation will only get worse.”, says Kimikazu Suzuki, ringing an alarm to these critical circumstances. In these unsuccessful National Team programs, we are not at the point of discussing X’s and O’s or the choice of players. What’s more relevant is that after every National competition, we haven’t followed up by reviewing every attempt made to change the situation. We haven’t done a full-scale self-examination and analysis. Because of that we waste so much experience and game data that could be utilized for the future. In other words, we’re terrible at connecting the dots.For a Japanese team that is unable to even bump shoulders at the world level, we can only experience a true test once every two years. We’ve had Head Coach changes every time we fail to meet our expectations, just to make the same mistakes over again. It’s the second time as HC for Kimikazu Suzuki but during the six years in between, a lot has changed in the Asia competition. He may have gotten a little feel for it in the FIBA Asia Cup or William Jones Cup, but the teams in the Asia Championship had changed more than anyone could imagine.
Thomas Wisman, who led Japan in the previous Asia Championship and finished 7th, led the Qatar team to 6th place in this competition. Thomas Bouldwin, who was runner up as the Jordan HC, was the advisory coach on the Philippines team this year, giving tips to coaching staff and players with enthusiasm, and was able to continue his success as runner up again.
The last time in history that Japan fought its way through Asia was with HC Mototaka Kohama. In 1996, he took up his 3rd term to direct the National team. Even though the 3 terms were separated from each other (1979, then 1984-1989), he had vast experience in the Asia competition. This transcends to the Women’s National team as well. Fumikazu Nakagawa lead the woman’s team for 9 years, which includes their success in the Atlanta Olympics, where they finished at 7th place. Just staying with one coach for a long time doesn’t do the job but I think a 4-year program at minimum is necessary for developing and building on the experience gained. And therefore I strongly suggest that the Men’s National team stay under Kimikazu Suzuki’s leadership.

Continuing to compete under Kimikazu Suzuki, we should unite our best coaches in Japan

Watching the Asia Championship, there was one thing in common among the teams that lost. Their head coaches were left on the sidelines, alone. Even Panagiotis Giannakis, a great basketball coach who led Greece to the finals in the 2006 World Basketball tournament in Japan, couldn’t lead his China team to the Final 4 on his own.
China was in the pool of death, Group C. They lost to Iran and Korea. In the 2nd round, they barely walked away with a 73-67 victory over Kazakhstan. In the tournament deciding 5th-8th place, their dominance as the top ranked team in Asia remained hidden. Beating Jordan 79-76, then Qatar 96-85, China looked out of synch to the very end. Unable to find their chemistry. Just like Japan.
On the contrary, if you look at the teams that had successes, the head coach and players communicated constantly. Not just the assistant coach, but all staff members would encourage the players. Even the associated members who had to stay behind the bench during the game would come out of their seats leaning forward to cheer and energize their team.
Japan Men’s team is in need of an assistant coach who can truly support the head coach. Last year, the women’s team, seeking a chance to compete in the London Olympics, brought the top 3 ranked WJBL’s head coaches together. Although they eventually lost, this was a valuable tactic that the Men’s team can learn from.
 Assistant coach Koji Naya understands Kimikazu Suzuki’s tactics very well, having played as one of the Aisin Sea Horse, the team Suzuki coaches in Japan. But even combined with the fact that he is a former National team player, the experience he has as a high school coach is just not enough. We need someone who can make great suggestions when the head coach needs it.
Reggie Garry, who won the bj league with Yokohama (now with Chiba Jets NBL); Takuya Kita, someone who took TOSHIBA to the JBL Finals in just 2 years; Dai Oketani, who won a bj league title in Okinawa, then took second year team Iwate to the playoffs; Kenji Hasegawa from Aoyama Gakuin University, who upset a JBL team (with a foreign player) in the All Japan tournament, with only his students. All of these men are talented coaches.
We have great head coaches with excellent skills. We need them shoulder to shoulder to face the basketball world outside of Japan.
Of course, bringing a high prospect head coach from overseas could be an option. In that case, his achievements in the Asia Championship should be a priority. After watching China fall and the Philippines make it to the Final 4, with Korea and Chinese-Taipei finishing high in the tournament, hiring a high profile head coach won’t change the field we face.
Kimikazu Suzuki takes on his duties as the National team head coach and as the Aisin Sea Horse head coach. Why not ask someone to bring his talent as an assistant while Suzuki leads on his own? Bringing together the best of the best makes total sense, “Only if Japan stands together will we have a chance”, as Suzuki says. We have no need to hear about ego conflicts like not wanting to be coaching “UNDER” Suzuki. Those narrow minded excuses should wait until we start WINNING!

Loyal fans, pushing their team onto the world stage

This long drought from international success cannot be blamed singlehandedly on the head coach, players or the Japan Basketball Association. Actually, the championship in the Philippines taught me that.
The Philippines team was supported by a full house throughout, from the competition opener to the championship game. Philippino fans packed the 20,000 seats of the Mall of Asia Arena. The Iranians, who took away the trophy, had many fans singing, dancing and waving flags on the upper deck as well. The players would react to such enthusiasm by crossing the court to where their fans awaited, wave their hands and signal with their appreciation.
During this competition, players arriving in the arena for the next game aren’t directed to their locker rooms from the back entrance. They came in at the event level, and walked halfway around the court while the previous game was still going on. At first I thought this was awkward, but in the Philippines, it’s not. Whenever the Philippine team arrived, they were welcomed with a huge ovation, no matter who was actually playing on the court. Philippine head coach Vincent ‘Chot’ Reyes would come in with his fist up high in the air, and the players would answer their fans’ cheers by taking photos and signing autographs, walking slowly halfway around the court to their lockers. This ritual continued every day, from day one of the qualifications to the final championship game. It is no surprise that the 2 teams with the best fans advanced to the final game.
From Japan, Eiji Tomita, introduced in a local Philippine website as “Super Fan” , screamed and shouted his lungs out. In the game against the Philippines, he stood all alone facing the 20,000 strong home crowd, beating his snare drum while the crowd tried to drown him out with boos. His cheers for his team went on throughout the game, and reached the Japanese players on the bench from the 5th floor bleachers.
This year, a new foundation “JAPAN PRIDE” was founded by Under Armour to motivate the Japanese national team. I sure hope they recognize Eiji Tomita, for waving the Japanese flag through adversity and the discouraging performance of his team. He is truly some one Japan should be proud of.

A record no different from Japan, but high expectations are unmatchable

Up until the 1970’s, the Philippines and Japan were rivals competing in the Olympics and the World Basketball tournament. After that, both countries became absent from the international competition until Japan made it back in1998, and was fortunate enough in 2006 to get in as the host country. The Philippines had more difficulties, due to conflicts among the Philippine Basketball Association and the FIBA, taking away their right to play in the Asia Championship in 2001 and 2005. After all these long hard years, this is the first time in 35 years, since 1978, that they advanced through Asia to face the world’s elite.
Despite having such a drought, 20,000 fans were at the arena everyday. Fans without tickets gathered around TV screens in restaurants, listening to the plays on car radios, or closely watching every shot on their phone. There were cheers and excitement overwhelming the entire city of Manila.
Chinese-Taipei is another place filled with love for the game. Yet most of their audience can be seen wearing NBA jerseys to the arena. In the Philippines, they wear jerseys and T-shirts with “GILAS”, the nickname for the national team, written on the front, or team jerseys with a variety of colors from their respected Philippine Professional Basketball League “PBA”. It is rare to see a fan with an NBA jersey.
For them this is not just a one-time event, hype without depth. Even without an international success to boost their spirit, they have supported and embraced their own Pro-League for a long time, which led them to next year’s World Cup.

The Egg or the Chicken

Now I face the biggest question. In a country such as the Philippines, where basketball is a national sport, do they have such strong support because they are a good team? Or are they a good team because they have strong support?
Looking back at Japan, if we wanted fast results, pointing fingers and finding who to blame is less important than to go out to the games in our own leagues (NBL, bj), and give the players some encouragement mixed with direct constructive criticism.
A league without REAL challenges for the players at home is a critical shortcoming, creating the conspicuous mental weakness of our National team in the international battle.
Why not limit the selection of players, choosing qualifiers only from teams with an average audience of 2500 or more? Or even hold an open tryout, gathering only players who would truly put everything on the line, to carry our flag.
Some players might be at Japan’s top level, giving them a decent way of living, but take one step out of the country and everything they have crumbles to the ground. Therefore we need our players to strive for more, with more fight. We as fans should also take actions to improve our national team, by going to at least one game a season, and give the players the support they need.
From now on, for us to advance through the Asia Championship, we need to change each and every game into a fight to win. Fortunately Under Armour now has a foundation to give more support, and Fuji Television bought the FIBA broadcasting rights. If there are enough viewers they may show the games nationally not just on selected channels. With all those things as motivation, teams, coaches, and players should compete this season with a unified vision: that they are the ones who are going to change Japan. If they can do that, 2 years is more than enough to close the gap against our Asian rivals.
Wake up, face the reality, have a critical mindset, but continue to run forward. There are no titles or words needed to make our team better. Take action with enthusiasm. Just like the Philippines did….