By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
In Japan, basketball is somewhat comparable to pro soccer here in the States. They’ve got a pro league (two and a half actually) in which the top athletes are pretty well compensated, but there’s really no buzz and those who are fans of hoops more readily follow the NBA. All the rest of the country simply ignores its existence in favor of the dominate sports like baseball, soccer and volleyball.
But watching the Higashi Osaka all-stars face off against JA kids growing up here in L.A. has me wholly impressed and extremely giddy about the future of Japanese faces in basketball.
While I’ll readily admit that the basketball got pretty “jungle” at times (understandable because the CYC squad had practiced together all of twice and the Japan team was full court pressing the entire game), I couldn’t help but acknowledge the level of skill and competition that was on display Saturday from both sides. From sound footwork on defense including quick lateral sliding and watching the numbers instead of the head or feet, to the diversity and proficiency in ball handling, to the ability to drive to the hoop, intentionally absorb contact, get the whistle and get up a makeable shot.
These kids showed a high level of basketball IQ.
And I’m talking about sixth graders here.
“I teach my kids if you enjoy playing basketball, you’d get better at it,” Higashi Osaka coach Ryosuke Kimura explained to the Rafu. “Since they are smaller, I focus them on defense. I teach them to stop shots before they are released.”
That defense is what won them the game—a full court blitz of man-up and help defense that caused a lot of chaos. While many of the CYC all-stars have incredible handles, the victory-by-a-thousand-cuts D from Osaka continued to force turnovers that led to easy transition buckets.
But defense is and always will be a team effort, and the Japanese squad certainly expressed their continuity in a slick, well-oiled and deadly manner. The CYC all-stars, on the other hand, looked more like a traditional all-star team—a group of talented individuals who were still feeling each other out. That the game was so close is a testament to their collective ability to adapt and fit in.
The bottom line is that what I saw out on that court Saturday, from these 11 and 12-year-old kids, is that the NBA is becoming a more and more real possibility for Japanese and Japanese Americans. With the changing of the handcheck rules that now favor lightning fast guards, height isn’t so much of an issue anymore. With sound fundamentals, handles, quickness, a reliable J and ability to find open teammates, size and strength are no longer must-haves like they were only 10 years ago.
Just the thought of a kid making it from the JA leagues to the NBA gets me giddy.
If Saturday’s contest is any indication of the future, I’ll be writing that story real soon.
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