He’s got game

It is practice day for the Tokyo Apaches. Although you may be a professional basketball team, because your league is new and an upstart (Japan’s new BJ League), you have to practice at the local YMCA. You can’t linger long after practice either because a very serious group of middle-aged badminton ladies have the gym time after yours. But from the intensity of the Apache scrimmages, it doesn’t seem like the team is that bothered by sharing its on-court its time.
The intra-squad game winds down and the point difference is three. On every offensive possession, rookie Kosaku Yada hustles to get open or cuts to the basket. As he dribbles down the court, point guard and team captain Darin Satoshi Maki yells at the time-keeper not to slack off about stopping the clock. These guys are playing for the win. Then a Japanese player who sees very little game time gets the ball in three-point territory. He locks his feet preparing to shoot, but then changes his mind and passes.
Head coach Joe Bryant has been quiet most of practice, only to give snippets of approval for heads-up plays. But he blows his whistle and sprints over to the player who passed. From his 204 cm height, he hurls down verbal thunderbolts: “You shoot! You are wide open. It’s a three-point game. Your feet were set. YOU SHOOT THE BALL!” It’s all basketball talk and nothing is lost in translation. However, what the coach is demanding is so different from what Japanese players have been taught to do. On Jelly’s team, you’re not scolded for missing a basket, but you might hear a few choice words for not shooting the ball.
“These guys have to learn to take action when the game is on the line. You don’t pass it away. I know why they don’t do shoot. Nobody wants to be the goat [“greatest of all time” or star player]. But to get glory, you gotta to be willing to be the goat,” explains Bryant.
Joe “Jellybean” Bryant has his work cut out for him in Japan where the culture to avoid being a goat or “star” deeply entrenched, from classrooms where students won’t raise their hands to offer answers, to boardrooms where directors won’t voice new strategies. Even on the Japanese version of the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” when friends of the contestant are asked to help on an answer, no one in the group ever speaks up, fearing their answer could be wrong. But at least on the basketball court at the Y, the times, they are a-changin’.
With a clean-shaven head and graying stubble on his chin, 54 year-old Joe Bryant is a former NBA player who also had a successful career in the Italian league. Most recently, his on-court endeavors have included coaching professional women’s basketball in the United States by taking on the LA Sparks in the WNBA. But his greatest basketball achievement may be his youngest child, NBA superstar Kobe Bryant. And Joe has no qualms about touting his son’s exploits when he coaches.
In the last game of his rookie season, Kobe shot two air balls in the crucial last minutes of the game, ending his team’s playoff hopes. The teenage player was chastised for the missed baskets, but years later, then teammate and rival superstar Shaquille O’Neal said about those shots, “Kobe was the only guy who had the guts at the time to take shots like that.” So the Tokyo Apaches are learning to mirror Kobe and “seize the moment,” in the same the way their head coach emphatically urges them to do every game.

Japanese Expressionism

Take the baby-faced 28 year-old Cohey Aoki. The BJ League’s Eastern Conference All-Star starting guard is a popular player, garnering almost 10,000 more votes than the guy behind him. Continuously the league’s top free throw shooter, the diminutive player standing at 167 cm, was last year’s leading Japanese scorer. On the Apaches, he has been annointed the team’s go-to guy.
Cohey (who goes by his first name) gives Joe Bryant the credit for creating the player he is today. “It took almost two years for what Coach Bryant was saying to sink in,” he recalls. “I was holding myself back, passing the ball in situations where I should have shot because I didn’t want to be perceived as a ball hog. In Japanese play, if you are regarded as selfish or a show-off, the game is over,” he says. But those days are finished.
Two seasons ago, when the team was plagued with injuries, Cohey had to step up his game. In one game the ball landed in his hands before the final buzzer. He shot, scored and won the game. “It was a moment I’ll never forget,” he says smiling. “Something inside me clicked. Yeah, if we are going to lose, I’d rather take the responsibility for it rather than resent someone else for doing it.”
“Last year, if we had Cohey healthy, we would have won the whole thing,” says Bryant, referring to the championship game last season when Aoki was injured in the first play of the game and the Apaches lost to the current champions, the Osaka Evessa.
Joe’s commitment to elevate Japanese players is multi-faceted. To instill the drive to always perform at their personal best, he showcases his two American-born players, similar in physical size to their Japan-born counterparts. “You got to show me you want to play,” he says. Players like Darin Satoshi Maki and Kosaku Yada, both Japanese ballers raised in the United States, differ from their native Japanese counterparts when it comes to their hunger for court time. “Over there [in the United States], if you don’t show off your stuff, the other guys don’t pick you to play, ” says Maki. He then points out that the difference even applies to practice, “We play intense, noisy games. The Japanese practices are silent, like being at a funeral.”
Indeed, basketball in Japan is different. According to cultural anthropologist George Gmelch, who has observed the sport globally, the game played in Japan is the most different from its American counterpart than any other country. In the academic journal, Japan Quarterly, he wrote about his experience playing for a rural university team and his shock at the first real game of the season. To make everyone feel equally valued, the starting players were chosen from the winners of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and inevitably the two best players ended up on the bench.
Cohey, who led his Senshu University team to an Intercollegiate championship, laughs at this story and asserts that at the more competitive college level, winning is given more priority. But he admits that singling out top players or complimenting players on good individual plays are avoided in Japan. “I was told by my coach that I was the worst team captain he had ever had,” he says with a wry smile.
Cohey is not the only Japanese player who has blossomed under Bryant’s tutelage. Masashi Joho is a player from the Osaka team that Bryant traded for last season. Though he was already an All-Star, Bryant felt Joho’s immense potential—a flashy player who spins and whirls for an open shot and dives for steals—were stifled under Osaka’s more conservative coaching system. In a close game this season, Bryant gave Joho the nod to take the last shot. When the ball swished through the net, the game was sent into overtime. It was the first time—not in high school, not in college, not in his previous BJ League experience—that Joho had been allowed to take charge. With his confidence boosted, he scored 11 of his team’s final 15 points to lead his team to an overtime victory. “Coach Bryant encourages us to express ourselves as individuals. This is a very new experience for all of the Japanese players,” explains Cohey.

The International Arena

Bryant’s fondness for players who are deemed too “expressive” by other coaches comes from a very personal place. Although he was a first-round draft pick heading into the NBA in 1975, the league was not receptive to his fancy street-style of play. Officials penalized him for palming the ball and coaches disapproved of his preference for one-on-one play. While he enjoyed a respectable career, long-time sports observers felt his potential was never realized and his style was ahead of his time. After eight years with three different teams, Bryant took his game to Europe. Over there, his young son grew up watching Italy fall in love his father’s electrifying style of play. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Kobe once commented on his father’s playing days there. “They used to sing songs for my father,” Kobe said. Then in Italian he sings one: “You know the player who’s better than Magic or Jabbar? It’s Joseph, Joseph Bryant!”
“Italy was wonderful, for our entire family. I thank my wife Pam for taking that leap with me because some wives don’t want to go abroad,” says the elder Bryant. It was in Europe that Joe Bryant grew to love the game outside the hallowed courts of the NBA. With a ball in his hands, basketball was basketball, no matter where it was played.
So in 2005 when a team for a new professional league in Japan was starting up and needed a coach, he was all game. “How could anyone turn down an opportunity to coach in Japan?” he asks. (Try asking Steve Francis, the Vancouver Grizzlies first round draft pick in 1999 who asked to be traded because he felt Canada was “too exotic” for him.)

Start-up Of An Upstart

From its inception, the BJ League was an upstart challenging Japan’s traditional basketball world, dominated by the Japan Basketball League (JBL), a conservative league consisting of corporate teams. Unlike baseball or soccer, basketball is a minor sport here and no one expected the country to support two leagues. The BJ League was not recognized by the Japan Basketball Association (JBA) and its players were ineligible to be on the national team. But to the surprise of naysayers, the league has created a lot of excitement and a few new expansion teams—including defectors from the JBL. So far, the teams are fairly evenly matched. The games are fast-paced and exciting. The Tokyo Apaches showcase pre-game and half-time entertainment shows that include The Tokyo Apaches Dance Team as well as guest performers. With ticket prices costing about the same as a movie ticket, the event offers good entertainment value. Now, as crowds continue to increase, the league appears to be here to stay.
The league was recently acknowledged by FIBA when the top executives came to Tokyo. The purpose of the February FIBA visit was to greet a new JBA board since the former group was suspended by the Japan Olympic Committee for mismanagement that led to tremendous debt after the 2006 World Championships held in Japan. The question of having two leagues was a serious point of discussion and the new JBA vowed to work towards giving the BJ League some sort of recognition. Bryant is excited about cross league play. To traditionalists who claim that JBL play is superior, Joe smiles and says, “Bring them on. Their league champion versus ours. Their All-Stars versus ours.”
Joe Bryant has adjusted well to life in Tokyo, with the exception of his lack of language skills, which leads him to fantasizing about kidnapping his older grandchildren to learn Japanese here and serve as his personal interpreters. “Kids pick up languages so much faster,” he says recalling how his own children learned Italian before he did.
What Bryant is fluent in is the universal language of being a considerate human being. As we talked, sprawled out on foam gymnastic mattresses, a shy middle-aged woman approached us, seemingly wary of interrupting. When Joe noticed her, he excused himself with, “I’ve got to say hi to a friend.” He sprang up, offered a greeting in English and gave her a warm hug. The hug is possibly the only part she understood, but that’s plenty enough.
Later, he tells me that the woman has been one of the Apaches’ most loyal fans, baking cookies for them even through the rough times. She is more than “just a fan,” he called her “a friend.” When he noticed a group of girls peering into the gym, waiting for us to leave, he went over and graciously told them to go in. For the Apache fan club, he brings them Lakers t-shirts as souvenirs and chocolate for Valentines. “You’re so Japanese,” I joke, and he looks almost embarrassed, shrugs and says, “I’m just a people person.”
Of course, Joe Bryant is not very Japanese. How many Japanese coaches in their 50s would petition to be a player? Two years ago, when the Apaches were ridden with injuries and short on players, Bryant wanted to sign himself up as a backup. In 2005, under similar circumstances, he had played in an ABA game for the Boston Frenzy, the team he was coaching. The 50 year-old grandfather scored 23 points, had eight rebounds and five assists. John Humphrey who is a top scorer in the BJ League was witness to that Boston game and was thoroughly impressed by Bryant’s play. “He’s slow, but he shows you don’t have to be fast to play this game,” he says, to which Bryant responds, “I’m playing chess out there while those guys are just doing checkers.”
But despite the impact watching his play might have on his Japanese players, not to mention the publicity it would trigger, conservatives within the league felt that allowing a 52 year-old coach to play would belittle the professionalism of the league—even more so if he played well. But Joe still suits up for practice every week, and he still has the street in him. “I used to have these moves you know and people said, ‘You gotta be made of jelly ‘cause jam don’t shake that like,’” Joe laughingly explains regarding the origins of his nickname.

Hoop Dreams

Of course, Bryant loves the Tokyo Apaches, the team he has coached from its birth four years ago. But on a different level, his love extends to all of basketball in Japan. The official BJ League rule is that there must be at least one Japanese person playing for each team during a game, so many teams have played four foreign guys. But not the Apaches, because Joe always insisted on having at least two Japanese players on the court. “How are Japanese players going to improve if they don’t get court time?” he says. And this year, the other coaches have come around to his thinking and have begun limiting their teams to three foreign players on court at the same time.
It may seem counterintuitive, but Bryant believes that inspiring players like Cohey and Joho to flash their stuff, is in fact helping team basketball. Further, it is the kind of basketball that Japan needs to succeed internationally. He is convinced he could lead Japan’s national team to do well in the Asian region and snag a berth for the Olympics. “The talent is here. It just has to be brought out,” he says.
For Joe Bryant to move to this next level, he’ll need BJ League championship rings. That might go a long way towards showing the corporate heads of Japanese basketball that letting guys express themselves on the floor can win as opposed to more conservative coaching. For Jelly, the game is far from over.

Story by Carol Hui
From J SELECT Magazine, May 2009