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The history of basketball has an almost fairy-tale quality. And like many such stories, one must travel a rocky road before reaching a happy ending. Such is the case for Japan, who was kicked out of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in November 2014 only to return after merging its two leagues. On September 22, a new era will tip off.

Known colloquially as hoops in the United States, the game was created at the International Young Men’s Christian Association Training School by physical education professor and instructor Dr. James Naismith. The name of the school alone seems like a Dickensian creation.

In early December 1891, before the long Massachusetts winter set in, Dr. Naismith decided to put together an indoor game that would stop the kids from freezing outside, yet keep them active through the snowy months. After some deliberation, he nailed a peach basket to 10-foot-high bleachers. Teams were given an old soccer ball, which they had to get in the basket to score a point.

As time went on, the rules were solidified. Teams came to consist of five people, a backboard was added to stop members of the crowd from interfering with shots, and the bottom of the basket was cut out to allow the ball to fall through. Soon a net replaced the basket altogether.

In the early 1900s, college and high school basketball became increasingly popular. By the 1920s, professional basketball teams were common. Hundreds could be found nationwide, but there was no governing body to keep them organized. The Basketball Association of America was formed in 1946, and in 1949 merged with the National Basketball League to form the National Basketball Association (NBA) that we know and love today.

Basketball is now one of the most popular and well-established global sports, played by both men and women. NBA players are among the highest-paid athletes in the world, and there are leagues and competitions in more than 70 countries.

Although the first person of color didn’t start playing professionally until 1946, for the NBA’s 2014–15 season 76.7 percent of players were of color according to The 2015 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Basketball Association, published by Dr. Richard Lapchick and The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

However, a miniscule 0.2% of players in the 2014–15 season were Asian, which becomes even more surprising when you consider that the player who broke the mold in 1946 was a Japanese American by the name of Wataru “Wat” Misaka, who grew up during a very turbulent time when people of Japanese descent were looked on far from favorably in the United States.

Zen Maki in action

Zen Maki in action

In addition to Asia’s lack of representation in the NBA, it could be argued that basketball does not have much sway in Japan. To find out more about Japan’s connection to basketball, The Journal spoke to Zen Maki, who is currently waiting to start his second season playing for the Hokkaido Levanga, and Don Beck, a seasoned international coach.

Maki was born in Nishio City, Aichi Prefecture, but at the age of 14 moved back to the US with his mother. His interest in basketball might have peaked in the US, where he was watching the NBA. One of his biggest influences was Allen Iverson, the eleven-time NBA All-Star known best for his years with the Philadelphia 76ers. Asked if he thought Japan could become a major player within the international basketball community, Maki said:

“I think we are, as a country, still far away from the top level internationally. We can do well in the Asian conferences, although we still struggle to beat European teams and of course the USA.

“One of the reasons why I think we aren’t meeting our full potential is because of the lackluster environment we have created here. There aren’t many gyms or basketball courts outside, there aren’t many trainers that work with kids besides school coaches. In the States, they start coaching children on the ins and outs of basketball at a very young age,” explained Maki. “The instructors in Japan, on the other hand, have only basic knowledge of the game. There are a lot of kids here that play basketball as their main sport while at school, but the environment and commitment to get better at basketball needs to greatly improve. And, more importantly, we need parents that put their kids in the hands of instructors who lead them in the right direction.”

Maki’s views were echoed by Don Beck, an international basketball coach with more than 25 years of experience. Beck spent five years with the Toyota Alvark Tokyo Men’s team and recently made the jump to the Women’s team.

“There is no shortage of people who play in junior high, high school, and even college; but there is very little support to bring them to the professional level.”

Former Toyota Alvark Tokyo Head Coach Don Beck

Former Toyota Alvark Tokyo Head Coach Don Beck

It seems that bureaucracy in Japan has also muddied the waters.

“During the bubble, there were dozens of corporate teams that received a lot of funding, which also meant they had great coaches, players, and facilities,” said Beck. “For the past 12 years or so, however, there have been two competing leagues in Japan: the JBL and the bj-league. The International Basketball Federation threatened to kick Japan out if they didn’t streamline the two leagues. They refused, and two years ago FIBA went through with their threat and Japan was expelled,” he explained.

“But when Tokyo secured the 2020 Olympics—and they had a shot at having the men’s and women’s teams compete—they merged the leagues, and from this September the B.League will start. This will bring more media coverage, more sponsorship, and hopefully a better platform to foster upcoming talent.”

As a result of the merger and formation of the 36-team B.League, FIBA lifted the suspension in August 2015. The B.League’s first game, a match between Earthfriends Tokyo Z and the Ryukyu Golden Kings, will be played on Thursday, September 22, at Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

Yuta Watanabe of the George Washington Colonials

Yuta Watanabe of the George Washington

Alvark Head Coach Takuma Ito is looking forward to the change. “I think everyone who is involved with basketball in Japan is excited about B.League,” he told The Journal. “For the first time, the future of Japanese basketball seems to be going in the right direction. B.League has secured a big television contract, sponsors, and media recognition—so the public’s attention will be drawn to basketball that much more.”

So while Maki may worry about the facilities available to potential future stars, Beck believes that we are on the cusp of a new era of basketball in Japan, one that could even boost that 0.2% figure in the NBA.

“Yuta Watanabe is one to watch for the future,” the coach predicted. “He’s currently with the George Washington Colonials, the first Japan-born student to get an NCAA scholarship there, and he’s got the skill, determination and—at 6’9″—has the height to make it in the NBA.

Adam Miller has been living and writing in Japan since 2008.
The International Basketball Federation … threatened to kick Japan out if they didn't streamline the two leagues.