Paris Olympics Basketball Berth: Japan Men’s Team Opens Door to New Era through ‘Power of Believing’

A new dawn is rising on Japan’s basketball community. The strenuous efforts by the men’s basketball team, nicknamed Akatsuki Japan, must be commended for overcoming a period of stagnation and opening the door to a new era.

At the men’s Basketball World Cup being held in Okinawa Prefecture and the Philippines and Indonesia, Japan won three games and qualified for next year’s Paris Olympics by finishing in the highest place of any team in Asia. It is the first time in 48 years, since the Montreal Games, that Japan has earned an Olympic berth on its own.

The team overcame a height disadvantage with speed and energetic play from extensive training, and scored with effective three-point shooting.

In the last game against Cape Verde, Japan faced the opponent’s strong offensive push in the final minutes but stuck to its own style, and the time for celebration arrived. First, the efforts by the players and staff must be given a big round of applause.

Japan’s basketball community has been in a long period of stagnation, due partly to internal strife in the sport’s association over personnel and budgetary issues.

In 2016, a professional men’s league, the B.League, was launched, and the playing environment has improved. However, results did not come easily, as the men’s national team lost all five of its games at the previous World Cup in 2019 and all three of its games at the Tokyo Olympics.

When the team lost one of its games by 30 points in the last World Cup, Yuta Watanabe, who plays in the NBA, said, “I think it’s embarrassing for Japan’s national team.”

This time, Watanabe entered the tournament with strong determination, saying, “If we don’t qualify for the Paris Olympics, I’m going to retire from the national team.” He likely felt that Japan could not have any embarrassing games at the World Cup his country is co-hosting.

The skill of head coach Tom Hovasse in rebuilding the national team is particularly noteworthy. Hovasse took over the men’s team after leading Japan’s women’s team to the silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Hailing from the United States, he is a passionate man, known for scolding his players, saying, “What are you doing?” in Japanese.

Initially, the players appeared to lack confidence in Hovasse’s eyes. So, during practices and games, the coach tenaciously repeated: “Please believe. Believe. Believe.”

Many people must have been encouraged by the passionate play of the Japan national team and the coach’s fighting alongside the players and learned the importance of believing in themselves.

The popularity of the sport is growing thanks in part to the success of the animated movie based on the basketball manga “Slam Dunk.” The hope is for Japan to excite the crowds again at the Paris Games.

This year, Japan won the World Baseball Classic. Haruka Kitaguchi won the women’s javelin at the World Athletics Championships. The Rugby World Cup will start on Friday. The performance of Japan’s athletes is certainly worth paying attention to.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 5, 2023)