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“I’m Glad I Play Basketball”: Japan’s Wheelchair Basketballers a Match for U.S., Impress with Silver

A brilliant page has been etched in the history of Japanese wheelchair basketball. The men’s wheelchair basketball final was held on September 5, the last day of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. The Japanese national team challenged previous champions the United States to a direct confrontation. The battle was fierce, with each side struggling to beat the other’s score until the very end. Although Japan ultimately lost to the United States, a team that knows how to win, there was a mere four-point difference in the score of 60 to 64. Japan finished with a dignified silver.

A game like in a dream

The final progressed with competition between two equally strong sides, but the Japanese team actually held practice games with the Americans before the opening of Tokyo 2020, after arriving at the Olympic and Paralympic Village. The Japanese did not win once. Head Coach (HC) Kazuyuki Kyoya reflected that the development of the final game into a more-than-equal fight cannot be discussed without mentioning the team’s growth throughout the competition: “Our win against Colombia in the first match gave us the opportunity to get stronger in each game. I think that growth turned to confidence and allowed us to show more capability than usual in the final. Our defense today was the best.”

The United States also sensed Japan’s growth.

Akira Toyoshima (fourth from left) led the team as captain, causing HC Kyoya (far right) to say, “This team couldn’t have done it without him.”

The United States’ team’s coach Ron Lykins said, “The Japanese team quickly improved as they rose in the tournament. We were prepared for a tough game.”

In the first period, tipped off by Reo Fujimoto (4.5) and Brian Bell (4.5), the first to score out of both teams was Fujimoto, who landed an adept three-point shot. Fujimoto sometimes resolves to start a game with a three-point shot, but he said that was not the case this time:

“I felt like I was in a dream, so I wasn’t aware of deciding on a three-point shot. It was just that the three-point shot I’d practiced was ingrained in my body, and that must be why I had the confidence to follow through. I mean that I didn’t decide (that I would proceed with a three-point shot), but I guess you could say I did it unconsciously.”

Japan’s defense was also effective after that, and the team stacked up points while time continued with the United States missing shots. However, the United States gradually persisted in gaining points, starting with a shot from Jake Williams (2.5), and the teams were deadlocked at the period’s end with a score of 18 to 18. The United States turned things around with a five-point lead in the score of 27 to 32 for the first half up to the second period.

According to veteran Hiroaki Kozai, who led the team through both defense and offense, “Our basic approach worked very well.”

How to win a gold medal, taught by sure scorers the United States

When Japan caught up to a tie in the third period with a shot from Hiroaki Kozai (3.5), the team immediately succeeded in coming back from behind with another shot from Renshi Chokai (2.5). Aside from pulling even right away, Japan approached the last period with a one-point lead in a score of 46 to 45.

HC Kyoya put everything on the line in the fourth period with the gold medal at stake: “I had decided that, if we were going to battle it out with the United States, we were going to compete with the fastest of Japan’s ten players in the lineup, with (class) 2.0, 2.5, 2.5, 3.0, and 3.5 for a total of 13.5*.”

In other words, Kyoya chose the fivesome of Akira Toyoshima (2.0), Chokai, Ryuga Akaishi (2.5), Takuya Furusawa (3.0), and Kozai. When the competitive lineup was completed by the introduction of Akaishi and Furusawa in a midway substitution, “The flow of events changed one shot, one miss, one play at a time,” said Chokai. Japan attacked resolutely in the tense circumstances, and Furusawa and Chokai added a five-point difference. However, Japan soon yielded the turnaround to the United States, which was putting on the pressure, for a point difference of three and a score of 58 to 61. Japan wanted to catch up, but after a timeout, Furusawa fired off a three-point shot and missed.

“Nailing the shot is my job and my responsibility. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t follow through,” Furusawa shared.

Toyoshima then commenced a strategy of intentionally fouling the other team, but he was unfortunate in his opponent: the United States’ team captain and point scorer Steve Serio (3.5). Serio had not missed a free throw up to then. This time as well, he easily scored two points with free throws, enlarging the point difference. In the remaining 28 seconds, Kozai once again committed a foul, Serio scored another point with a free throw, and the game was settled.

Fujimoto explained, “The United States knew how to win, and when we had the lead in the remaining approximately five minutes, top player Serio showed us how to score medal-winning baskets.”

In that way, Japan fell into the experienced United States’ trap in the end, and it is probably reasonable to assess that Serio coaxed the Japanese team to foul him. Japan also had instances here and there of not succeeding on shots and free throws, but besides Serio, the United States’ successful shooting in spite of difficult positioning and timing was another factor that made the difference between victory and defeat.

“Serio’s ability to follow through was amazing. Japan didn’t quite have enough capacity to pull off tough shots against him under the difficult circumstances. This gap came out today,” said HC Kyoya.

*The total number of points for the classes of the five players on the court is 14 or fewer.

After the game ended, one of the veteran players, Tetsuya Miyajima (right), could not stop crying.

The players’ growing thirst for the gold medal

Japan lost the gold medal by a slight margin. Although the team felt satisfied with winning silver, confident words were overheard from the young players, with Akaishi saying, “All the same, I wanted the gold medal,” and Furusawa mentioning, “In three years I want to be sure to win the gold medal.”

At the award ceremony, fellow players hung medals on each other’s necks and praised one another’s efforts with fist bumps.

For now, we would like to gratefully accept the spectacular achievement of the Japanese flag being raised in the award ceremony. We would also like to pay our respects to the many players and staff members who made efforts to reach this point.

However, from now on is a new beginning. Next starts not an attempt at a medal but at the gold medal. Spectators will be able to hear the Japanese national anthem “Kimigayo” during wheelchair basketball, the greatest highlight of the Paralympic Games. Give some generous applause and a cheer for the Japanese men’s national team, who make us believe that day will really come.

An impressive silver-medal win. The tears seen after the game turned into refreshing smiles at the award ceremony.

Comments are below:

HC Kazuyuki Kyoya
“I’m glad we achieved our goal of winning a medal. I’ve felt a rise in interest in the competition thanks to the television broadcast and the medal. However, if we’re content with that, it’s the end. The future is important, so I’d like to light a fire under the young players.”

Akira Toyoshima (captain)
“Thinking of (the silver medal) as not just a goal we’ve held up for the last five years but our accumulated history, including for the senior players, makes it extremely important. I’ve decided that (my team activities) end with these Paralympic Games. I told the young generation to do their best next time.”

Reo Fujimoto
“In this game, we were able to fight head-to-head with the best opponents in the world on the world’s best stage. The five frantic years (since the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games) were really long, but getting the best-ever result was the greatest treasure of my competitive life.”

“I spent forty minutes being supported and encouraged by the junior players,” said Fujimoto.

Hiroaki Kozai
“I cried right after the game thinking I wouldn’t be able to play basketball anymore with the players for whom this was the last competition. I feel strongly that we were close to winning this game. I also want to say thank you to the members besides these 12 who worked to strengthen us together.”

Ryuga Akaishi
“I saw the American national team looking happy (after the final was over) and really wanted that color medal. I want to come back from this loss to win the gold. And yet, since we’re the second strongest team in the world, I want to puff up my chest and go home with confidence.”

Akaishi was an asset for Japan with his gutsy playing: “I learned to be prepared as the Japanese national team by watching my seniors.”

Renshi Chokai
“There were only difficult days in the approximately five years since Rio. There was a time I worried about whether to continue playing basketball, but I’m glad I did. (The silver medal) is the result of overcoming a hard time. When I consider it like that, I don’t think the gold medal is close at hand.”

Chokai drew attention even from the United States team as “a very fast athlete who does not give up.”

Kei Akita
“It’s frustrating. I think one factor in being forced into a close game was that we competed on defense and didn’t make our opponents create a good flow. I just feel we need to have the ability to persist even when we’re pressured.”

Akita, a source of points for Japan, said, “We can do more, and we can still grow.”

edited by TEAM A
text by Masae Iwata
photo by Takashi Okui

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