Monday, December 28, 2009

Oita Heat Devils 74 at Kyoto Hannaryz 85 - bj League, December 26, 2009

Once in a while I take a trip that someone else plans for me. This past weekend was one of those trips, when my girlfriend planned a weekend in Kyoto to do some sightseeing. I've been to Kyoto before and it's always a good place to visit, but now I knew there was a basketball team there. Could the sports gods be giving me an early Christmas present? I checked out the bj League schedule and sure enough, the Kyoto Hannaryz were at home both days! As the Saturday game was in the evening after it was dark, I chose that one and headed over to the gym to catch my 3rd bj League game this month.

The Stadium

Kyoto Furitsu gym is located in the northwest quadrant of the city. It's a 6-minute walk from Enmachi station on the JR San'in Line, which leaves from Kyoto station. You'll need to check a map before you go though, it's not that easy to find. You need to walk north when leaving the station, cross a street at a light, and walk about 4 blocks north before turning left and walking about 2 blocks. You should see it then. It was dark when I arrived and so I couldn't get a good description of the outside of the building, but the entrance was on the north side of the gym.

The venue itself is actually quite big with a capacity of over 8,500, much more than the gyms in Sendai and Tokyo. Even more impressive was the nice scoreboard over center court, a first for me in this league. It was due to the scoreboard that I realized the timeout rule in this league. In the first half, each team gets two 60-second and two 20-second timeouts, but in the second half, the number of 60-second timeouts available increases to three.

There are a variety of seating options, almost laughably so given the small attendance, but you should just get the cheap seats at 1,500 yen. You can sit anywhere in the 2nd deck which is close enough. In the picture below, the black seats near the floor are the more expensive seats at 3,500 yen in the middle or 2,500 yen at the ends. The 5 rows above that plus all the empty seats are the cheaper sit where you want section which is only 1,500 yen. All tickets are 500 yen cheaper if you buy them before game day.

Food options here are also good. On the 1F beneath the main entrance there are several items including some very tasty looking sandwiches (at 800 yen a bit out of my price range), frankfurters, pork buns, and freshly made mini castellas. On the second floor there is a small shop that sells pop and snacks at reasonable prices.

Overall, this is the best of the 3 gyms I've been to in the bj League. Unfortunately, the Hannaryz only play about a third of their home games here. In fact, this was their first game at the Furitsu gym; they usually play at Kyoto City Gym, which is a much smaller venue that holds just under 3,000 fans. They even have a 3rd home gym which is located in nearby Muko City. Guess I'll have to return to see those gyms too!

The Teams

The Kyoto Hannaryz are the only expansion team in this league this season. They've signed Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, once a #3 overall NBA pick, who is more famous for his refusal to stand during the American national anthem. Josh Bostic (pictured below), who was the Division II player of the year last season for Findlay, is also on the team and is 5th in scoring, averaging around 22 points a game. The Hannaryz, named after a local leasing company, are coached by ex-NBAer David Benoit, and stand last in the West at 5-13.

The Oita Heat Devils have been in the league since it started 5 years ago, but have never done much. In fact, last season they were a league worst 8-44 and there were fears in the off-season that they would fold. Based in Beppu (known for its hot springs hence the nickname), the Heat Devils are only 7-13 this season and need to improve handily to secure a playoff spot. Ricky Woods and Mike Bell are in the top 10 in scoring and rebounds, and they have a rookie in 7-footer Rashaad Singleton, who leads the league in blocked shots.

The Game

The first thing I noticed was that Abdul-Rauf was not dressed for the game. Apparently he is injured, which was somewhat disappointing. Next, during warmups, one of the nets was dislodged and so there were workers trying to put it back into place. They had to stop the countdown clock at 3 minutes while the basket was adjusted properly. It didn't take long and tipoff was only slightly delayed, but it's not something you see in the NBA.


The game itself was a study in contrasts. The first half was dominated by the visitors who started on a 9-0 run before Benoit called a timeout to stem the tide. The Hannaryz responded and grabbed a 14-13 lead but Oita rallied to take a 4-point lead at the end of one quarter.

Bell drains a three

The second quarter saw Hannaryz start slowly, taking 4:32 to score their first basket. But Oita wasn't much better, only managing 5 points in that span. But they went on a 8-0 burst and cruised to halftime with a 42-31 lead. It would have been more if Woods could sink his free throws. He was creating chances in the paint and being fouled repeatedly, but ended up going 1/8 from the line in the first half.

Bell blocks a layup by Naoto Takushi

The third quarter was pretty even and Oita was up by 13 with 2:30 to go. But a 3-pointer from Jun Iwasa and a Bostic dunk and then 3-pointer were part of a 12-2 Hannaryz run which cut the lead to 3. A late 3-pointer from Masahiro Ohara gave the Heat Devils a 64-58 entering the final frame.

Bostic drives for a layup

The short break wasn't enough to kill Kyoto's momentum though. Their defense picked it up a notch and suddenly the Heat Devils were stone cold from the floor, getting few clean looks. Bostic drained a basket to tie the game at 67 with just over 6 minutes to go. After Woods split a pair of freebies, John Clifford gave Kyoto a 1-point lead with 4:52 left. Shortly thereafter Taizo Kawabe sank a 3 to make it 72-68 and bring the fans to their feet. Oita was in the midst of an 0-12 shooting streak that lasted 8 minutes and Kyoto took advantage, going from 4 down to 8 up. Oita's inability to score forced them to start fouling early, but Kyoto was too good from the line (21/27), and the Heat Devils were done.

The final was 85-74, but the game was much closer, being tied with 6 minutes to go as you can see above. Again the last two minutes took forever as Oita fouled on every possession in a vain attempt to close the gap, but thankfully the Hannaryz made their free throws to thwart the stupidest strategy in sports.

Overall, a very exciting game for the home fans, with an 11-point halftime deficit turned into an 11-point win. I was particularly impressed with Bostic's play. He had 28 points and 20 rebounds, but it was his speed when getting a defensive board and then blazing down the court that was really memorable. It wouldn't surprise me to see him move to a more basketball-oriented country in the near future; it's a shame only a thousand spectators are seeing him play here.

The Fans

For an exhibition club, the Hannaryz have a boisterous if somewhat tiresome crowd. But they are well-trained. Before the game, the fans were instructed to practice their cheers. There are two cheers for when the Hannaryz are on defense: the first is De-Fense, the second is De-Fense, but at a slower pace. Genius. On offense, there were three cheers: Go Kyoto Hannaryz; Kyoto Hannaryz; and Kyoto Hannaryz, again at a slightly different tempo. Truly inventive. But the fans were quick, and managed to get these cheers down pat with just a few repetitions.

I knew that these cheers, when combined with the amazingly-yet-to-be-banned Thunderstix, were sure to make for a loud and aggravating crowd. Sure enough, they screamed on every possession, led on by the scoreboard (see the DEFENSE in red in the picture above) . I enjoy these contests, but the constant, mindless cheering combined with the lack of understanding of the game are really beginning to grate. I don't mind the occasional chant at a key point, but the endless, repetitive yelling is headache-inducing. Why is it that in Japan, to be a fan of a team requires that you make noise all the time? Doesn't anybody watch for the pleasure of the game anymore?

Thoughts on the League

Having complained about the fans, I'll now try to be positive. This league is actually very interesting and it surprises me that more fans don't go out to these games. The gyms are central, tickets are reasonable, and the quality of the game is better than I expected. And as I mentioned, Japanese fans seem attracted to sports where they can make lots of noise, so basketball suits that purpose.

It just seems that the league is poorly marketed. Here in Tokyo for example, I never see a single ad for the Apache. As well, most teams play in several different arenas, which is not conducive to building a strong fan base. Finally, with a stretched schedule that sees teams playing only 4-6 times per month, fans can't be expected to maintain interest over the entire season. It's too bad and I hope the league can build itself up over the next few years. So if you enjoy basketball and live in or are visiting Japan, I suggest you try to see a game wherever you might be. And if you can't understand the bj League website, drop me a line and I'll help you out.



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