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45th Japan Wheelchair Basketball Championships: Experience for the Global Stage

The 45th Japan Wheelchair Basketball Championships, a tournament for the Prime Minister’s Cup, was held on three days between May 3 and May 5 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. Miyagi MAX (Tohoku) won the championships after a close final game with NO EXCUSE (Tokyo). In leaving NO EXCUSE behind, Miyagi MAX achieved a record-breaking ninth consecutive championships title. Meanwhile, NO EXCUSE was unable to capture the crown for the first time. Miyagi’s ace player Reo Fujimoto (4.5 points), who had made a great contribution to the win, was chosen MVP for the second year in a row for his fourth MVP award. Sixteen teams that had won regional tournaments competed in this tournament. The teams included young players who will likely lead Japan’s wheelchair basketball in the future.

Takamatsu of the Tochigi Lakers Makes Team Debut Amidst Tears of Frustration

Seventeen-year-old Yoshinobu Takamatsu (4.0 points) of the Tochigi Lakers was unable to stop tears of frustration after the game. His first time on the stage for the highest spot in Japan turned out to be a tough experience for him.

The Laker’s first game was fought against the World Basketball Club (BBC) of Aichi Prefecture. World BBC is a strong team that is among the title favorites almost every year. Takamatsu was chosen to be in the starting lineup, bearing evidence to the fact that Takamatsu has been growing at breakneck speed despite having been playing wheelchair basketball for only one year.

The Tochigi Lakers was off to a good start, leading World BBC 17 to 11 at the end of the first quarter. Although World BBC mounted a fierce charge during the second quarter, they managed to keep the score an even 24 to 24 at the end of the first half, not allowing the score to be overturned. As far as the team was concerned, it was not bad at all. However, Takamatsu’s plays were lacking the usual aggressiveness.

The first time this writer saw Takamatsu in a game was at the training camp held in March this year for the selection of Japan U23 Men’s team members. Although rough around the edges, Takamatsu’s movement was nothing like that of a player who had been playing wheelchiar basketball for only one year. His future seemed limitless at the time.

The plays of the Takamatsu seen at the Japan Wheelchair Basketball Championships held no resemblance to those seen in March. The game ended with Takamatsu’s playing staying unchanged. The team, too, allowed the score to be overturned during the third quarter. Their opponent ran with that lead, leaving the Lakers in the dust for a 45 to 67 loss.

Takamatsu made no excuses in the interview after the game. He was frustrated that he had not been able to play like his usual self.

He said, “I will not forget this frustration and will redeem myself next time.”
That ‘next time’ for Takamatsu, who has been selected to be in the Japan U23 Men’s team, will be on the world stage.

Maruyama and Kumagai of the Nagano Wheelchair Basketball Club (WBC) Hold the Keys to the U23 Team

Koki Maruyama of the Nagano WBC

The Japan U23 Men’s team won second place in January this year at the U23 Asia Oceania Zone qualifying tournament for the 2017 U23 World Wheelchair Basketball Championship. Two players who made a massive contribution were Koki Maruyama (2.5 points) and Satoru Kumagai (3.5 points). They both play for the Nagano WBC. They played their first game against the Saitama Lions, whose starting lineup members were all candidates for the Japan national team. Nagano lost to the star-studded Lions 39 to 68.

The pair already has experience playing in the Japan Wheelchair Basketball Championships. This annual stage for deciding the team that will be at the pinnacle of Japanese wheelchair basketball has become an opportunity for them to test their abilities. They have also used the experience gained through the championships as fuel for growth.

Maruyama, known for his speed and cuts, fostered a feeling of rivalry against the Lions and its speedy plays. He particularly had his eyes on Hiroyasu Nagata, who was on the Japan national team in the Rio Paralympics. A 2.0 pointer, Nagata has a similar point classification as Maruyama’s 2.5 points. Maruyama was keen to compete his speed against Nagata’s speed.

Maruyama said, “I played with the conviction that he would never beat me in terms of speed. I felt that I did well in some instances, but the Lions has more than just speed. It is quick to switch between offense and defense. I felt that we have more work to do in that respect.”

Meanwhile, Kumagai’s biggest weapon is his mid-range shots. Although he wanted to fulfill his role as a point-getter, perhaps he was affected by the size of the gymnasium, the height of the ceiling or the atmosphere—all of which differed from the usual environment. He had difficulty making the mid-range shots for which he is so well known. He felt that was one of the factors for his team’s loss.

Kumagai said, “It was only at the end of the game that I finally started making my shots. The team started to move smoothly, too. I am disappointed that we weren’t able to make the corrections in our plays at an earlier stage in the game.”

Satoru Kumagai of the Nagano WBC

Maruyama and Kumagai will be playing at the 9th Fazza Wheelchair Basketball International Championships (May 14 through 18 in Dubai) as Japan U23 Men’s team members. That will be the last international tournament for the Japan team before the 2017 Men’s U23 World Wheelchair Basketball Championship (Toronto) in June. The international championships will have to be fought without four core members, including captain and U23-team-backbone Takuya Furusawa (3.0 points), and Renshi Chokai (2.5 points), who played in Rio. They are candidates to become A Team members and are taking part in camp training. That is all the more reason why the upcoming international championships is an important tournament in which the pair will have a chance to show how well they can do without them. Maruyama and Kumagai realize that they are the ones who will have to lead the team.

Kumagai said,
“My mid-range shots will be important if we’re going to make the most of Maruyama’s cuts to the inside. I think that will make or break the game in Dubai, where we won’t have Furusawa or Chokai with us on the team.”

Other burgeoning U23 players who were in the Japan Wheelchair Basketball Championships were Ryuga Akaishi (2.5 points) of the Saitama Lions, who is known for his superb defense, and Kazuma Terauchi (4.5 points) of the Toyama Wheelchair Basketball Club (WBC), with great reach. These two will also be in Dubai and Toronto as part of the Japan U23 Men’s team.

Meanwhile, not everyone made the Japan U23 Men’s team. Ryou Furukawa (1.0 points) of the Saitama Lions, who was not selected, said, “The first thing for me to do is to establish my place on my team (the Lions).” Competing in a team with members who are national team-class players should help him step-up his game.

The experience of playing in the Japan Wheelchair Basketball Championships, where younger players have a chance to compete against top Japanese wheelchair basketball players, is helping younger athletes grow.

Ryuga Akaishi of the Saitama Lions

A send-off ceremony for the Japan U23 Men’s team was also carried out at the championship.

*The numerals in parentheses represent a player’s point classification according to the type or severity of his impairment.

text by Hisako Saito
photo by X-1
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