On the one-year anniversary of the disaster in Japan, heinnews’s David Hein reached out to talk to an American basketball coach in Japan, Eric Gardow of the Chiba Jets of the BJ League. They discussed the phenomenon Jeremy Lin and his impact on Japan; going to the Far East after watching the horrific pictures of the earthquake and tsunami on television shortly before that; the differences in Japan’s two leagues – BJ League and JBL; the health and perspective of basketball in Japan; basketball in Qatar (where he coached from 2007 to 2011); and Qatar’s chances of pulling off a strong 2022 football World Cup as hosts.
heinnews: First off, I know he’s not Japanese, and I figure you might not understand Japanese, but how big is Jeremy Lin in Japan right now?
Gardow: Lin is a hot item here in Japan. Everyone that is Asian appears to be staking their claim or their association to him. As we travel around the league, NY Knicks gear is showing up everywhere from fans, to PA announcers, etc.
heinnews: Do you see him making an impact on people following basketball in Japan?
Gardow: Lin will make an impact all over Asia, just by the number of people that can associate to him by the size and quite frankly and respectfully his looks. He is undersized in strength and stature like the majority of Asian basketball players and that will instill hope in them that they too may still have a chance an opportunity to play at the highest level. Maybe not at the NBA level, but professionally, or beyond high school or college, he will impact kids around the Asian world to play the game because of the size of his fight and importantly, his level of education that he has achieved at Harvard.
heinnews: Going back to your decision to take over the coaching job of expansion side Chiba Jets, what was it like for you to come to Japan after knowing what had happened there last March?
Gardow: I had agreed in principle to my contract with the Chiba Jets prior to the disaster. I had already been here and visited with them so when we saw the disaster happen live while we were living in Qatar, it really struck us in a different way. I have a lot of friends here in Japan through the game of basketball and we had a lot of concern for them through that entire process. It was difficult to watch for all of us but when you have a close connection and first hand stories coming from there, it does make your mind wonder.
At the time of the earthquake my twin babies were born in Qatar and we were just thankful that we were not there during that time. They are with me here as well and we have a lot of nervous times when we have earthquakes now. Truthfully, it’s really hard on us as a family adjusting to them. We have one a day sometimes as many as five. If my wife is home with the kids and I am at practice or away at a game on a road trip, it is very stressful on her and on us. It’s always in the back of your mind having an exit strategy, a safety plan, and several “what if” scenarios.
heinnews: What would you see is the biggest misperceived notion about Japan in the aftermath of the disasters there?
Gardow: Life still goes on here. There are millions and millions of people here. Japan is a beautiful place and the people are great. However, there is nothing that can change those catastrophic images that remain from that date and we are approaching the 1 year anniversary on the 11th. There is still some very unsettling information that is not being truthfully spoken about the Fukashima Prefecture where the nuclear plant was dismantled.
heinnews: So, enough about the problems in Japan – which I’m sure you had to talk about a number of times. I was wondering if you could give us a basic breakdown of the league structure in Japan. There is the JBL and the BJ League. What are the differences and how did the separation come about?
Gardow: I am still learning the difficult system here in Japan and like most places, there is a lot of politics involved. There is the JBA, Japan Basketball Association, the governing body if you will. They oversee several levels of basketball here from high school, college, professional as well as the Japan National Team.
The two leagues are entirely different. The JBL has been around the longest and has a different set of rules. There are 8 teams, all run by major Japanese companies, and they play under FIBA rules on the court. They are allowed two import players per team and only one on the court at a time. It has the strongest Japanese players in it as all of the National Team players are participating in that league.
The BJ League is only seven years old. Professional teams are financially supported by sponsors, boosters, fans, etc. They have their own set of rules basketball wise (different from FIBA). They also can have up to five import players per team. Three can be on the court in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th quarters. The 2nd quarter each team needs to have three Japanese on the floor and only two imports. There are also more teams. We have an East and a West Conference dividing the 19 teams.
Philosophies are completely different in both leagues in each and every aspect of the league. Needless to say, they both have VERY unique situations in league and team structure. (This is an entire story by itself, LOL!!!)
heinnews: How big is the commitment to basketball in Japan?
Gardow: Between both leagues, there is an astronomical amount of money spent each year for basketball. They would love nothing more than to compete on the world stage as a National Team and they strongly desire to put another guy or to have a Japanese player in the NBA. There have been a couple make it close in and out for a little while but no one at the level of Jeremy Lin and that is what they want.
heinnews: How many people come out to the games?
Gardow: Anywhere from 500 to 5000 at the league games (in both Leagues) The BJ League has more of a fan base because they need the people, the boosters, sponsors, etc to run the team so they market it as such like most professional teams. Now, one of my fondest memories will be from this year when I was nominated to be on the Eastern Conference (All Star Team) coaching staff. It was held at the same stadium where Greece and Spain played the 2006 World Championship final at Saitama Super Arena this past January, and we had 14,000 fans. So they are capable of generating numbers in basketball here. It was quite a spectacle and frankly I was surprised.
heinnews: I remember the 2006 FIBA World Championship there and how the announcer had to kind of teach the crowd how and when to cheer. Do you have a sense the crowd is knowledgeable about the game?
Gardow: Basketball in Japan is different as the culture is so different. Yes they teach the fans every game how to cheer, hours before the game starts. They are eager to learn and want to do it properly and respectfully. Our fans as we know them around the world or other die-hard fans in every sport can be less than sportsmanlike at levels where your team passion and pride is overrun with adrenaline and feelings that typically come out in heated competition. We have all witnessed that. I doubt that will ever happen here as the culture is so concerned with proper etiquette and being polite to even the simplest things, like cheering properly. It definitely has its innocent or naive side at times.
heinnews: What have been your most humorous moments in Japan in a basketball aspect?
Gardow: Wow, that’s a loaded question. After coaching around the world (I have coached competitively in international competition in 14 or 15 different countries now) and I have experienced some of the most humorous and not humorous times in my first season here in Japan. Most of them are and have the cultural tone to it and when seen or heard it is fair to say there is “always something lost in translation” just like the movie. So to say something funny about it might be disrespectful to the culture and or misunderstood unless you have been in Japan and experienced it first hand, it would not be funny. I’m not out to hurt anyone’s feelings that way. The Japanese are serious people and sarcasm does not translate here.
What I will say and I mean this at no level of disrespect, but the officiating here is like Comedy Central at times. I know coaches complain all the time about officials – it is who we are, comes with the job, like them, love to hate them, etc… all of the above. But, something crazy happens during every game. It used to really bother me, tear me up inside, but in my first full season here, I have come to realize that it’s just what it is here, humorous. To all the basketball officials out there reading this, I am sorry.
heinnews: Looking at the quality of basketball in total in Japan – combined with both leagues – where do you see the level of basketball in the country?
Gardow: For as far as Japan is in leading most things in world business, technology, and in other sports like baseball and soccer, it is really behind in basketball globally. There are two things that hurt Japan basketball. One is their lack of knowledge of the English Language as a whole at every level with basketball. The second thing is all of the feeder programs, high school, college, even club teams are designed equally (they are all meant to be the same) so as kids grow up with the game, often times the talented players are not able to grow and express themselves on the court because that is not their philosophy. Most athletic Japanese basketball players are not given the opportunity to be different or excel as youth because they want them all to be the same. Sad but true, it’s not accepted to overachieve on the court individually or to advance “outside of the box” at that impressionable age where results and competition should be the sky is the limit. It’s often viewed as 1:1 versus the TEAM when a player is that good and stands out as an obvious talent.
heinnews: You coached a few years in Qatar including the Qatar national team, what is Qatar’s basketball culture like? And how was the basketball level in Qatar?
Gardow: Basketball in Qatar is very competitive. The Qatari people really enjoy their sports. Even though football (soccer) is the number one sport there, the Arab people throughout the Middle East region really like basketball. The National Team experience for me will be one of my most memorable and where I learned the most globally as we traveled and competed everywhere in training camps and competition and against some of the best basketball talent in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and in Asia. I always felt like they supported the coaches there (obviously winning helps) but, when I was there and when I asked for something to help the team, I was able to get it and to have that support to put your system in place to be successful is really special. Now, the basketball level in Qatar is not as high as it is in some countries, but overall my experiences in my almost 5 years there were all positive. The people were very good to me and my family and like I said, I am sure winning helps.
heinnews: Do you think that the level was improving and what kinds of step were being taken to improve the game there?
Gardow: The future of basketball in Qatar may not be as productive as that small country has global initiatives for their people outside of basketball. Young kids will always try to play soccer first and now, hosting the World Cup, every kid wants to play in that. Outside of basketball, several good athletes see the big picture and want to be a part of the oil and gas industry. So many youth are wealthy and can do whatever they want, get their education wherever they want, and the family members will lead them to that, so basketball is not a priority for most of them.
heinnews: Qatar of course made the headlines in December 2010 for winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup. What do you think about that?
Gardow: Unless you have lived there or visited there, it may be hard to realize, however, it was not really a surprise that they got the bid. They had a lot of advisors from around the world including the U.K. contribute to the efforts to get the bid and they have the money to back it up.
heinnews: How do you see Qatar as a host nation and can they pull it off?
Gardow: They will do it and do it well. It is all their money and they will use all the resources available to them from the best people around the world to pull it off…Only time will tell the end of the story.