Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sendai Saturday Sports Spectacular (Part 2) - Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix 83 at Sendai 89ers 82 - December 12, 2009

After watching Vegalta Sendai's pulsating extra time victory, the evening event beckoned. It was to be my first bj League game between Hamamatsu and Sendai. With the soccer game going long, we had just enough time to head back to the hotel to freshen up before making our way to the Aoba Gym.

bj League

Unfortunately named and poorly marketed, the basketball japan League (bj League for short) has been around for 5 years now. There are 13 teams divided into two conferences, with Sendai being the northernmost team and Ryukyu (Okinawa) being the furthest south. The schedule is 8 months long, stretching from October to May, with playoffs following. Each team plays 52 games, so there's only about 6 or 7 games per month. It seems like every road trip is also a doubleheader, with games on Saturday and Sunday (or in Tokyo's case, back-to-back weekdays).

There are some differences in the rules from the NBA, particularly with the 1-and-1 penalty and 10-minute quarters. There can be no more than 3 non-Asian players on the floor per team, and at least one Japanese player must be on the floor at all times. The foreign players seem to have played Division 1 or 2 NCAA ball but weren't good enough to be drafted.

One of the problems with the league is that home games are played in different gyms which makes being a regular fan more difficult. Imagine if the Lakers played a few games in Riverside or Santa Monica - it would not work. Not all teams do this, but I did notice that the Sendai plays at 3 different gyms this season.

The league is covered in the Japan Times for English speakers, and there are a couple of cable channels that broadcast games, but overall penetration into the sports fan's mindset is not very good. After seeing the soccer game with over 18,000 people, only 1,500 or so showed up to watch the 89ers. I think Sendai is a great sports town, but for some reason, basketball just doesn't rate here.

Getting there

The gym is located just above Kita-Sendai subway station, about 8 minutes from downtown. Follow the signs to Aoba Gym, and try not to get lost - it's not a big place and not obvious from the station exit. However, there should be a few other fans going that way, so follow them.

The Stadium

This is not a stadium, it's just a small local gym that seats about 2,000 people. There are 4 seating choices, the first two are the courtside seats which should be avoided, then the fixed seats which are close enough along one sideline, then the free seating around the rest of the gym. At 3,500 yen for game-day tickets in the fixed seating, it's rather expensive, but given the turnout, it's not surprising they need to charge that much.

There's a small food stall in one corner that serves sausages and baked goods. Otherwise there is nothing worth mentioning here. My friend Chris who joined me said his high school gym back in the U.S. was bigger. The great thing though is that you are really close to the action. Basketball is a great game when viewed up close, and the high tempo displayed in the first quarter on was great to watch.

The Teams

The Sendai 89ers have been around since the bj League started in 2005. They've yet to win a title though, or even appear in a final. They were Eastern Conference champs in 2007-08 but lost the semi-final to Tokyo. This season they have four Americans, most notably Gyno Pomare, who led his San Diego Toreros to a first-round upset over Connecticut back in 2008. This season, they stand 2nd in the Eastern Conference at 10-6 going into the game.

The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix have been around for a while, but were a new team in the bj League from last season. There were no expansion team follies here though, as they went 36-16 to take 1st place in the East. But they also fell to Tokyo in their first semi-final visit. They are back on top of the East this season with a 14-2 record. Veteran William Knight out of UCLA leads the team.

The Game

The first quarter started fast and furious. The Phoenix were on fire early, sinking their first 6 shots or so, but Sendai clawed back, ending the quarter with a 23-20 lead. It only took 20 minutes to play, and I thought that the game would be over in an hour, but the second quarter was when the game devolved into a more typical game with fouls and timeouts galore. Sendai pressured Hamamatsu into several bad shots while making their own, and went to the dressing room up 40-31, ending the quarter on a 10-2 run.

This slam by Demetrius Guions put Sendai up by 8

Halftime was highlighted by the announcer moving through the stands talking to fans. When he spotted Chris and I, he raced over and told us to say "Go Go Niners". Ugh. I had a thought to say something else but refrained and muttered "Go Go Niners" rather unenthusiastically. Wonder if my lack of energy hurt the team in the second half.

Anyway, back to the game. The third quarter was fairly even, but it was with just two seconds left that the turning point in the game happened. With 8.7 seconds left and Hamamatsu down 57-47, each team took a 60-second timeout to diagram a play. The 89ers stopped the first chance, but Wendell White got the ball in the corner and fired up a Hail Mary 3 which miraculously drained and the quarter ended with Hamamatsu down just 7 points.

Chris Holm dunks

The Phoenix had the ball to start the 4th, and quickly scored to draw within 5. Sendai was rattled and they couldn't make their shots as Hamamatsu sensed the game was theirs for the taking. Sure enough, a few possessions later and the Phoenix were on top. Sendai had no answers for the Hamamatsu defense and with 90 seconds to go, it was the Phoenix up by 7.

This is when the game stopped dead in its tracks. With little chance to catch up with the 24 second clock, Sendai was forced to foul whenever a Phoenix player had the ball. With the 1-and-1 rule, if Hisamatsu missed the first foul shot, the ball would be loose, and often Sendai would rebound, drive the floor, and shoot a 3. If they made it or not, they would foul again as soon as they could and the process would repeat. Hamamatsu often missed the first shot and Sendai suddenly was draining 3's. The lead grew smaller, and I grew more frustrated as the game had become completely stupid by this point. Fortunately the Phoenix managed to sink their last six free throws and when Sendai drained a meaningless 3 at the buzzer, the game ended 83-82 for Hamamatsu.

Masashiro Oguchi drained this 3

Knight led all scorers with 26 points in only 29 minutes while Sendai's Chris Holm out of Vermont dominated the boards with 16.

I find it difficult to analyze basketball, especially to explain how a team won a game 83-82. Sendai outshot and out-rebounded Hamamatsu but turned the ball over 21 times, many as a result of good Phoenix defense. And of course, the score is much closer than the actual game. Which brings me to the next point: the stupidest rule in sports. Why is it that a team that is in the lead must defend that lead by hitting free throws after being intentionally fouled? Even stupider, if the first FT is missed, the other team has a chance to drive for 3. Even if both free throws are made, the other team still has a chance to outscore you 3-2 on each possession. And all the fouls and timeouts kill the energy of the fans. Clearly, an intentional foul should be 3 shots from the charity stripe.

Watch the end of a close hockey game - the players are fighting for the puck and trying to win. Now watch the end of a close basketball game. Whistles, fouls, timeouts, which are great for TV but bad for fans sitting there. The simple presence of this rule is why basketball is not a lot of fun to watch. You invest your time and are rewarded at the end with either garbage time or foul after foul. Somebody needs to fix this.


The 89ers do have energetic fans, and energetic cheerleaders too. During every time out, they'd race onto the floor, dance for a minute, and race off. At game's end, with time outs all over the place, I think even the cheerleaders were more tired than the players. But they put on a great show and kept the fans entertained during the seemingly endless run of timeouts near the end of each half.

Christmas Cheerleaders with umbrellas?

Next Up

I'll be checking out the Tokyo Apache tomorrow (December 16th) and then visiting Kyoto where I will catch one more game on the 26th. After that, I should have a better idea of how good this league really is. So check back for reports then.



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