Basketball may be a hugely popular sport worldwide, but it still lags behind in Japanese mass media and lacks mainstream support, despite several efforts.
Last month, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) brought their "Basketball without Borders" (BwB) program to Japan for the first time ever, offering workshops on game fundamentals. It was a warm gesture of support for the kids in both Tokyo and the disaster-hit Tohoku region, but it didn't get a lot of ink. After all, the BwB team – despite its good intentions – has already blasted off to another country.
It may sound dramatic, but the truth is that the basketball world doesn't care much about Japan, and, for the most part, Japan doesn't care about the world of basketball. As an acquaintance involved with organizing the BwB workshops shared, “We had trouble finding enough local kids to participate."
There are plenty of reasons for this disinterest. A lack of media coverage, lack of financial support, lack of height, lack of skills, lack of experienced coaches, and a lack of winning. Furthermore, outside of the country, nobody really has access (in English) to what's going on in Japanese basketball.
While most of the developed world has fully embraced what many would consider the planet's second most popular game after soccer, Japan still doesn't have a single player in the NBA and there are few quality training camps for aspiring young players. We may actually be the world's biggest basketball underdog. Much more needs to be done not only to support the growing domestic interest in the game but to get Japan onto a court where our neighbors from China and now Taiwan are already shining.
Over the past decade, I've worked closely with young Japanese and international players, bringing a streetball delegation from Japan to play some friendly games in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, and arranging the first-ever trip for a Japanese streetball team to compete in Russia at the Pacific Open in Vladivostok last year. In that time, I've watched grassroots interest in the game grow considerably, yet the sad reality is that Japan, as a whole, is still in the stone age of basketball. The primary outlet for young players, the rigid bukatsu (after school activities) system, has had limited success pushing kids to the next level of their game, and non-bukatsu options are in short supply. Supporting new Japanese basketball development opportunities would not only help these players, but could open up global business opportunities as well.
There's no question: Japanese basketball has the potential of being a highly profitable enterprise. The problem is, so far, no one's been able to figure out how. A large US hedge fund, EVO Capital Management, bought the Tokyo Apache basketball club ahead of the 2010-11 season with hopes of bringing their own brand of western-style sports entertainment to the professional Japanese Basketball Japan (bj) League, but ran into some difficulty connecting with their local fan base. After the earthquakes of March 11th, EVO decided to cut their losses and shutdown for the remainder of the season. Likewise, NBA Japan, which has been hoping to reach the Japanese mainstream audience ever since holding the first international NBA regular season games in Tokyo back in 1990, closed down its office the day after the earthquake and relocated to its Asia Headquarters in Hong Kong. When asked about the idea of bringing western-style basketball entertainment to Japan, Toshimitsu Kawachi, commissioner of the bj League, was quoted in the Japan Times as saying that he knew it wouldn't work.
My organization, What Sport Creative, has tried to deliver Japanese basketball onto the world stage while working to maintain a Japanese identity, from the logo to the roster. For the past four years, we've sent a Japanese streetball team to Paris to join one of the world's most high-profile international basketball tournaments – Quai 54. With this year's trip, we experienced our first taste of victory by winning the House of Hoops 3-point shootout and gave the fans a little something to remember by getting a first-ever Japanese participant into the dunk contest. Now we're still looking for our first big win in the game at le Quai, but we're proud that Japan has been represented in this global tournament, bringing our own unique brand of basketball for the world to see. As our team returns home from our sixth international competition, representing Japan at the FIBA 3×3 World Tour in Vladivostok this past weekend, we are still actively seeking funds to help pay for our RISINGSUNS 2012 campaign.
If Japan is to really have a place on the world basketball stage, there needs to be more domestic support from both the private and public sectors. Basketball isn't going anywhere and Japanese interest in the sport is only spreading. It's time the world's third richest nation took a big jump, and rose with the game.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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