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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Saga Ballooners on the Rise 





Luis Guil's father and uncles have worked as airplane pilots in his native Spain. Perhaps, then, it's not outrageous to suggest that there was a metaphorical epiphany tied to his current work as a basketball coach in Japan's B. League. 


After all, his relatives have been comfortable working in the air, and his employers, the Saga Ballooners, are comfortable making the ascension from the ground to the higher reaches of this nation's basketball pyramid. Ambition and smart decision-making have gone hand in hand.


It all started in the fall of 2019, when Guil and the first-year franchise stepped onto the court in the B. League's third division, without a history and without a track record of success, failure or mediocrity. It didn't take long, however, for the Ballooners to prove that they were one of the top clubs in B3.


Saga went 30-10, the best record among 12 B3 teams, in its inaugural campaign, earning promotion to the second division, which has 16 teams this season.


In the current campaign, which tipped off in October, Guil, the high-energy 49-year-old bench boss, has navigated his club's first foray at a new level.


The results are impressive. Entering a weekend series against the Koshigaya Alphas on November 21-22, the Ballooners (10-3) had the best record in the West Division. Fueling Saga's success to date was a recent eight-game winning streak that ended with an 86-74 road loss to the Kumamoto Volters in the teams' series finale on November 15.


When you glance at the top 10 individual statistical leaders for B2, the Ballooners aren't listed repeatedly. In fact, among the key categories (scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, blocks and shooting percentage totals), Saga has only two players. Point guard Reon Shibuta, a promising 22-year-old from Iwate Prefecture, is third overall in assists (5.6 per game), and veteran shooting guard Shuhei Komatsu, a 35-year-old who began his pro career in 2008, is No. 8 in 3-point shooting accuracy (36.2%). Guil said Shibuta, who's averaging 9.9 points per game, has the potential to become a special player.



In analyzing Shibuta's role, Guil likened him to a dependable sixth man who comes off the bench -- mentioning Spain men's national team standout Sergio Llull as a prime example -- and gives the team a spark. 


"For me, it's important who finishes the game, not which players start the game, and my players understand this," Guil declared. "The most important time is the clutch time."


Where the Ballooners succeed is team play. Guil and his capable assistants, fellow Spaniard Fernando Calero and Takayuki Yasuda, a former Volters head coach, have stressed smart, unselfish play throughout the team's existence. That emphasis continues to reap dividends.


Through November 15, the Ballooners were among the B2 leaders in several key team statistical categories: No. 1 in assists (24.6 per game), second in steals (9.8), second in 3-pooting shooting percentage (35.9), No. 3 in scoring (86.2) and fifth in rebounding (35.2).


Saga head coach Luis Guil is in his second season at the helm. Credit: B. League


Speaking to JAPAN Forward earlier this week by phone from Saga, Guil outlined his team's overall approach to growth and on-court chemistry, which he described as pillars of success.


"The most important thing for me is always the team over the individual," Guil said. "For me, my construction of the team is players not only thinking of themselves, but thinking of the team. If this is not possible, I don't recruit foreign players that only come here to score or [accumulate statistics]."


Guil, who also serves as an assistant coach for the Spain national team, which won the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China, looks for leadership and team-chemistry building skills from foreign players American center Kenny Lawson (Creighton University alum), Argentine small forward Marcos Mata and Cuban point guard Reynaldo Garcia. He also relies heavily on his Japanese players while using a deep bench ー usually 10 or 11 players every game. Other coaches stick to a tighter rotation of eight or nine players.


A team-first identity is one of Ballooners coach Luis Guil's mandates. Credit: B. League


But Guil speaks without hesitation about why he likes given nearly equal playing time to a larger cast of players.


"We are the best team in the bench points," he pointed out, referring to scoring from non-starters. All players for me are important."


He cited the aforementioned game against Kumamoto as an example, a game in which no Ballooners played more than 30 minutes.


The Saga Ballooners mascot (Credit: B. League)


Guil is targeting a playoff berth this season, setting a high benchmark for the Ballooners.


To achieve that goal, Guil insists that his team must be focused on defense as the No. 1 objective.


"All players have to have a mentality to [play] defense," he told JAPAN Forward. "Sacrifice for the team. ... And I think the foreign players and the Japanese players are always thinking about the team, not thinking about themselves."


Before accepting a job offer to coach the Ballooners, Guil listened to team president  Teppei Takehara's vision for the club during a face-to-face meeting in Spain: to reach B1 within three years.


That piqued his interest. In addition, Saga will be the home of an under-construction 8,000-seat sports arena in 2021 or 2022, enhancing the appeal of the job.


"For me, what's important is the project," Guil noted. "Is it a good project? [If so] for me, it's OK [to start] in the third division ... because I want to go to Japan for a good project, and I think that this project is very good."


Ballooners head coach Luis Guil enjoys one of Saga's local attractions.


Guil's work in Japan has been enriched by activities off the court, such as embracing rich cultural traditions and recently popular events. He and his wife, Ana, participated in the 2019 Saga International Balloon Fiesta.






Ex-ozeki Kotoshogiku Reveals Decision to Retire


Kotoshogiku, who  amassed 718 career victories in the makuuchi division (pro sumo's top division) , during his long career is retiring, sources said on November 14.


The 36-year-0ld Kotoshogiku wraps up his career with the sixth-most wins in the top division.


So what's next for the Kotoshogiku, the Sadogatake stable grappler who went 1-5 in the November Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan before withdrawing from the basho last weekend?


He is planning to begin work as a toshiyori elder and adapt the name Hidenoyama, Kyodo News reported.


Kotoshogiku won the 2016 New Year Grand Sumo Tournament.


Kotoshogiku was the oldest wrestler in the ancient sport's top two divisions.


In January 2002, his pro sumo career began. He reached the level of ozeki, the second-highest rank, in 2011 and held on to the ranking for 32 tournaments. What's more, he stayed in the top division for 92 tourneys.


Kotoshogiku, whose given name is Kazuhiro Kikutsugi, nabbed the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament title, his only tourney victory, in January 2016.



Japan entered the second half in a scoreless tie against Mexico on November 17. Mexico triumphed 2-0.



Mexico Outplays Japan in Friendly


In the Japan men's national team's second international friendly in five days in Graz, Austria, on Tuesday, November 17, manager Hajime Moriyasu's squad lost 2-0 to Mexico.


The match was scoreless entering the second half.


Mexico, the world's 11th-ranked team, received an offensive boost with goals from Raul Jimenez (63rd minute) and Hirving Lozano (68th) at Liebenauer Stadium.


When it was over, Moriyasu reflected on Japan's performance.


"In order for us to compete at the world stage, we must construct a solid concept in both offense and defense, heighten the quality of our plays even while playing with high intensity, and polish our plays in the final third [of the match]," Moriyasu said. 


He added: "We did not enter the second half poorly, but our opponent came out with more intensity, forcing us to make mistakes, which allowed them to gain more momentum. ... Although we were kept scoreless in this loss, our players fought courageously until the final whistle."


Japan, ranked 27th, defeated Panama 1-0 on a Takumi Minamino penalty kick on November 13 at the same venue.



Tomokazu Harimoto competes at the ITTF Finals in Zhengzhou, China, on November 19.


Table Tennis

Hashimoto, Ishikawa Fall in Opening Round at ITTF Finals


World No. 4 Tomokazu Harimoto was bounced from the International Table Tennis Federation Finals in the first round of men's singles action on Thursday, November 19.


South Korea's Woo Jin Jang, who's ranked No. 18, trailed 3-1 in the seven-game match before mounting a spirited comeback against his 17-year-old opponent in Zhengzhou, China and winning 6-11, 2-11, 11-7, 7-11, 12-10, 11-2, 11-5.


Kasumi Ishikawa plays a shot at the ITTF Finals.


On the same day, Kasumi Ishikawa, the world's ninth-ranked women's singles player, dropped an 11-8, 3-11, 11-9, 11-5, 11-5 decision to world No. 23 Hyo Won Suh of South Korea.



Hideki Matsuyama swings his club at Augusta National Golf Club.



Matsuyama Finishes Tied for 13th at The Masters


PGA Tour veteran Hideki Matsuyama shot an 8-under 280 at The Masters, finishing tied with three others for 13th place on Sunday, November 15.


Matsuyama shot rounds of 68, 68, 72 and 72 in succession, while American Dustin Johnson won it with a record 20-under 268 in the 84th edition of the event at the 72-par Augusta National Golf Club.


Hideki Matsuyama plays at The Masters in Augusta, Georgia.


For the 36-year-old Johnson, his first Masters title came 35 days after he was diagnosed with COVID-19, Golf Digest reported.


Next year's Masters is scheduled to return to its normal spot on the calendar, in April. This year's event was postponed due to the global pandemic.





Kojiro Shiraishi Slips to 31st Place


Earlier in the week, sailor Kojiro Shiraishi was in 21st or 22nd place at various times in the Vendée Globe, an around-the-world solo race.


By morning on Saturday, November 21, Shiraishi had fallen to next-to-last place (31st) in the epic journey. Thirty-three sailors began the journey on November 8 in Les Sables d'Olonne, France.


As of 4 a.m. on November 21, he remained 2,268.5 nautical miles (4,201.26 kilometers) as the leader, Alex Thompson, set the pace heading toward the latitude of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on the previous day.



With mechanical problems and strong winds affecting his ship, DMG MORI Global One Shiraishi worked on getting things back in order in recent days. As sailingscuttlebutt.com reported on November 20, "[Shiraishi] is back in the race with an operational mainsail on DMH MORI. Four days of repairs to a tear at the top of his sail and batten repairs are completed, even if the Asian skipper must sail with one reef from now on.  He was sailing directly west this afternoon away from the Cape Verde islands which might have provided additional refuge had he needed it."   


Watch Shiraishi work diligently to make repairs to his vessel here




In a video posted on his racing team's YouTube channel on November 13, Shiraishi detailed the challenges of his journey:


It's November 11th. Last night was a horrible night. Boat was upwind with more than 45 knots of wind. That wasn't the problem, the problem was the third mainsail third reef. There was a lot of water inside the mainsail and I couldn't jibe. I had to empty 10 buckets full of sea water. The main sail was ragging on the coach roof. Maybe there is some damage.


And the backstay went into the mainsail. So I eased the mainsail below the third reef. But the third reef didn't hook. And I was able to hoist the mainsail to the second reef and it worked. So I reefed, took out the water [and] hooked the sail. And also a small thing broke on the blocks of the rudder jammer. And the water sensor keeps on putting false alarms when the boat shakes. So I took the alarm cable off the speaker...


Indeed, Shiraishi faces major challenges to climb in the standings and finish the race in several weeks.


[ODDS and EVENS] Kojiro Shiraishi Preparing to Embark on Epic Odyssey in Vendée Globe



World No. 4 Naomi Osaka hits a forehand return.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka



Osaka Appears In New Beats By Dr. Dre Ad


Reigning U.S. Open women's singles champion Naomi Osaka appears in a new advertisement campaign for Beats By Dr. Dre, which debuted on November 12.


Also featured in the "You Love Me" ad campaign are NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace and rapper Lil Baby. Solange Knowles, pop music superstar Beyoncé's younger sister, created the score, while film director Melina Matsuokas ("Queen & Slim") guided the project, with narration from Tobe Nwigwe. 


The ad campaign celebrates Black joy and resilience. The 2-minute video is posted here.  


Beats manufactures wireless headphones, speakers and related accessories.


“I recently joined the Beats family because I am impressed by how the brand is taking a more vocal stance about issues important to my generation," Osaka told Variety. "Partnering with such a talented group of Black creators to share this crucial message and celebrate our culture was an amazing opportunity.”



[ODDS and EVENS] An Ode to Naomi Osaka
TENNIS | Naomi Osaka Captures Second U.S. Open Title



Wally Yonamine in 1951. Credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN



Yonamine Posthumously Inducted into Asian Hall of Fame


Former Yomiuri Giants player Wally Yonamine is among the Asian Hall of Fame's Class of 2020 inductees.


A virtual induction ceremony was streamed online on Saturday, November 21.


A nissei (second-generation Japanese American) born in Hawaii, Yonamine played for the Yomiuri Giants (1951–1960) and Chunichi Dragons (1961–1962), primarily as an outfielder, but also at first base. He was a seven-time Best Nine selection, a three-time Central League batting champion and an 11-time All-Star with the Giants. He was a part of four Japan Series title-winning teams during his time with the Tokyo-based club.


The first American to play in NPB after World War II, Yonamine had a lifetime batting average of .311 and rapped out 1,387 hits. He stole 163 bases, playing an aggressive brand of ball that influenced the game here. 


After his playing days, he served as a Giants coach, then managed the Chunichi Dragons from 1972-77. He died in 2011 at age 85 in Honolulu.


Yonamine also played running back for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers in 1947, but left the team before the 1948 season after fracturing his wrist in a baseball game during the offseason.


The Asian Hall of Fame is based in Seattle, Washington.


Swallows star Tetsuto Yamada. Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0


Swallows Star OKs Seven-year Deal


Tokyo Yakult Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada has signed a seven-year contract, it was announced on November 19.


The 28-year-old Yamada, who made his NPB debut in 2012, was limited to 94 games this season and finished with a .254 batting average. He's a .293 career hitter in 1,058 games.


His contract is reportedly worth ¥3.5 billion JPY ($33.7 million USD) over seven years plus bonuses. 


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