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[ODDS and EVENS] 10th Anniversary of 3.11 a Big Reminder of Unifying Power of Sports

Athletes, teams, leagues and sports fans supported one another in the aftermath of the Tohoku disasters, lifting each other's spirits.



A commemorative poster issued by the Sendai 89ers in 2017.


The stretch of days before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami is etched in my mind's eye with crystal-clear clarity. 

In addition, observing how Japan's residents rallied around one another to begin the process of rebuilding provided a crash course in this nation's most deeply engraved values. Kizuna, which refers to the bond or connections between people, was selected as the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society's 2011 Kanji of the Year. It perfectly encapsulates how the sports world came together to support one another.

For me, March 2011 was punctuated by a whirlwind of activity, including Honoo Hamaguchi's final game as Sendai 8ers head coach and the final game in Tokyo Apache history. Massive amounts of correspondence via cellphone, text messages, emails and Facebook updates and messenger exchanges also marked those days as I connected with several hundred people to notify them that I was OK after the 3.11 disasters. 

My round-the-clock communiques also involved piecing together the whereabouts of the Japan's pro basketball team's players and staff as part of my reporting duties for my former employer, The Japan Times. On March 11, the 89ers were en route to Niigata Prefecture for a weekend series against the Niigata Albirex BB, taking a break at a rest stop when the largest earthquake of our lifetime struck.

Players, fans and acquaintances and others deeply connected to Japan's close-knit basketball circles shed light on the knowns and the unknowns about the 89ers after the Magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Tohoku at 2:46 p.m. on the second Friday of the month. It was an instant ー and repeated ー reminder for days on end about kizuna.

But before that occurred, my 3.11 afternoon began like many others...

I had settled into my seat on the newspaper's sports desk around 2 p.m. for the evening shift. Before the expected busy deadline work began, though, there was time to exchange a few text messages with Osaka Evessa superstar Lynn Washington, whose sarcastic missives about the now-defunct bj-league's happenings were a welcome distraction. Lynn, a former Indiana University player under legendary coach Bob Knight, and I talked and texted frequently about the rapid growth of the bj-league and the players, coaches and personalities surrounding it.

Fueled by expansion and an infusion of new talent, the 2010-11 bj-league season brought great intrigue, giving the basketball circuit 16 teams, including the brand-new Akita Northern Happinets. That campaign also carried greater significance with the arrival of the league's first former NBA head coach (Bob Hill) as the Apache bench boss.

The Northern Happinets and Apache converged for a two-game series at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 on March 9-10, 2011. Akita's double-overtime, 100-98 win in the opener included a spectacular performance by rookie guard Sek Henry, who scored 19 of his 42 points in the two overtimes. The Apache exacted revenge on the visitors a day later, winning 94-80. Hill's club, which included 2011 NBA Draft pick Jeremy Tyler, improved to 20-14 with the win.

The Apache, blessed with a deep, talented roster and championship potential, never played another game. Tokyo's American owner, Michael Lerch, suspended operations after 3.11 and didn't allocate the necessary funds to field a team for the 2011-12 season.

As for the 89ers, I was also on hand for longtime coach Hamaguchi's last game at the helm, but of course didn't know it at the time. And it involved a banner performance in Kasukabe, Saitama Prefecture. Sendai rookie standout Mac Hopson owned the spotlight in the fourth quarter, making 12 of 14 free throws in the final period, and finishing with a dazzling 40-point, nine-assist stat line in a 95-86 victory over the Saitama Broncos on March 6. For the 89ers (24-12), the win was their second in as many days over the Broncos and boosted their playoff aspirations.

Days later, word came from Sendai forward Mike Bell and others about the team's scary experience at a roadside rest stop.

"We were just leaving Sendai to go to Niigata," Bell told me. "After about 10 minutes, we stopped somewhere to eat and that's where we were when the earthquake hit. Half of the team was in the restaurant eating and some of us were on the bus. I was on the bus as well.

"We all experienced four earthquakes the day before and it felt like one of those at first, but then the intensity kept getting stronger and stronger. I was reading at the time, but it felt like the bus was going to tip over, so I got off the bus with my coach [Hamaguchi] and trainer [Yuichi Kitagawa] and just watched everything that was going on in disbelief."

The trip to Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, was expected to take about 4 hours. Instead, it took more than 11 hours.

In an interview the next day, Bell described the journey after the initial earthquake this way: 

"We got back on the highway and had seen many aftereffects of the quake, including cracks on the highway forcing us to slow down and go over them very slowly as if they were speed bumps. We also saw many people standing out of cracked houses and many other things."

The 89ers spent the night in Nagaoka before returning to Sendai, which was near the epicenter of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Their primary home gym, Sendai City Gymnasium, was heavily damaged by the earthquake (more on the 89ers' revival below). Another nearby arena in Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture, which served as the site for the 2010 bj-league All-Star Game, became a morgue in the immediate aftermath of the 3.11 disasters.

A Sense of Normalcy

In November 2012, the NHK Trophy, one of the biggest annual figure skating events on the calendar, was held at Rifu's Sekisui Heim Super Arena. Local hero Yuzuru Hanyu, who hails from Sendai, won the men's title that weekend, which also gave the Japan Skating Federation (JSF) an opportunity to thank the world's skating community for their support.

The JSF decision to hold the NHK Trophy in Miyagi Prefecture 19 months after the devastating earthquake and tsunami was easy to understand. It "sent a message about our recovery, in response to support from around the world," Agence France-Presse reported a JSF official saying at the time.

In other words, the event symbolized gratitude and a commitment to kizuna as the region tried to heal and revitalize itself after the loss of more than 18,000 lives due to the earthquake and tsunami.

These themes, in fact, appeared on the ice. “Thank you from Tohoku, Japan,” were displayed on a big banner during the marquee competition beamed by satellite to all corners of the globe. 

Deeply moved by the experience, Hanyu, who has had a remarkable career that includes two Olympic gold medals and two world titles, expressed appreciation for what the win represented to him. “I talked to the rink, saying ‘I thank you very much,’ ” Hanyu was quoted as saying by AFP

Again, think of kizuna.

Impact on Japanese Sports

The 3.11 disasters didn't just sideline the 89ers (for several months) and mark the end of the Apache's existence, of course. Japan's 2011 spring sports calendar was abruptly put on hold. The start of the Nippon Professional Baseball season was pushed back a few weeks from late March to April 12.

The J. League campaign had gotten underway on March 5, and then postponed from March 12 to April 23.

The Spring Grand Sumo Tournament, which was scheduled to be held March 13-27 in Osaka, was canceled.

Throughout Tohoku, many youth sports clubs and junior high school and high school teams returned to training and competition with the rubble of the 3.11 disasters a daily reminder of what had happened.

Once the baseball season got underway, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, who have received enthusiastic support through the region (Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Fukushima and Yamagata prefectures), enjoyed even more encouragement from fans throughout the nation. And Eagles hurler Masahiro Tanaka shared the NPB lead with D.J. Houlton of the Japan Series champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks for most wins (19) that season.

Two notable global feats brought joy to Japanese sports fans in the aftermath of the 3.11 disasters before the calendar flipped to 2012.

Miki Ando won her second world title at the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships in Moscow on April 30. The event, originally scheduled for March 21-27, was moved from Tokyo after 3.11.

[ICE TIME] A Letter From a Fan in Tohoku Helped Inspire Miki Ando to Her Second World Title in 2011

Nadeshiko Japan captured the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup title on July 17 in Frankfurt, Germany, winning 3-1 in a penalty shootout against the United States in the final. The match was tied 2-2 after extra time.

Captain Homare Sawa and her teammates carved out a place in the hearts of Japanese fans with their emotional run to the title throughout the summer tournament. Sawa secured a chance for her club on PKs with a 117th-minute goal, equalizing after Abby Wambach put the Americans in front in the 104th minute.

Game after game during the tourney, tons of people, including those who wouldn't label themselves as big sports fans or soccer fanatics, were glued to their TVs at offices and at bars and communal gathering places throughout Japan. (Watch game highlights here.) 

Japanese living overseas didn't hide their collective joy after the final.

"All the Japanese people are excited," New York City resident Kotaro Koike told the New York Daily News. "It makes us all very happy. We needed to feel happy in a time like this."

Another Japanese-born fan, Sui Nakashima, told the Big Apple tabloid that the World Cup title was the perfect tonic for Japan in the aftermath of 3.11.

"Japan had a rough year. Winning the World Cup is good for our spirit here and especially in Japan," Nakashima stated. "It was an amazing win. Everybody is happy."

Basketball Journeys

Throughout the spring of 2011 and that autumn, and subsequent treks over the next few years, I witnessed the metaphysical and emotional hold that basketball held on many communities in Japan.

In Fujieda, Shizuoka Prefecture, I saw the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix spearhead a canned goods collection drive, with team volunteers lined up by the entrance gates before a weekend game. Players and then-head coach Kazuo Nakamura thanked fans for bringing supplies to the arena during post-game interviews. It was a positive public-service announcement.

I saw repeated scenes like this outside basketball arenas on visits to Shiga, Kyoto and Osaka prefectures in the weeks that followed. Fans and teams were committed to helping collect emergency supplies, such as nonperishable foods and medical supplies, for Tohoku communities. Without an agenda or demanding the spotlight, folks came together to help their compatriots and foreigners living in Tohoku. Kizuna.

Throughout the bj-league, chants of "We are 89ers" were heard at games whenever one of the players who completed that season as "rental players" was on the court. For example, Shimura finished the season with the Ryukyu Golden Kings and backcourt mate Hikaru Kusaka played for the Kyoto Hannaryz. Both wore No. 89 jerseys as a sign of solidarity with their team and Tohoku at large. Kizuna.

The 89ers returned to competition for the bj-league’s 2011-12 campaign and their first home game, on October 29 against the Northern Happinets, season was an emotional event at the gym, which required an estimated ¥200 million in repairs. A moment of silence before tipoff never felt more appropriate, I remember thinking at the time.

“The bond between the fans and the team was forged over the last six years with all the hard work the team and staff put into it, but overcoming the tragedy of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami has made that bond even deeper," said then-coach Bob Pierce, who replaced Hamaguchi on the Sendai sideline.

Takeo Mabashi, who served as Sendai general manager in those days, acknowledged the team's financial situation was a bit rocky after the 3.11 disasters. In an exclusive interview the day before the aforementioned home opener, he reflected on the staff's commitment to being a part of the fabric of the community.

“Right after the disaster happened, of course no one knows which direction this organization is going, either keep this business alive for next season or shut down the whole thing right away,” Mabashi said. “So first of all, I never thought about applying for another team’s job or thinking about basketball itself. I was not thinking anything about basketball right away. First and foremost, I thought ... this company needs to stay strong.”

When the 89ers made their emotional return ー in an 80-71 loss to the Northern Happinets, Sendai native Takehiko Shimura was getting acclimated to his new role as team captain.

It was a role he was born to have, and he poured his heart and soul into doing whatever he could to help in Miyagi Prefecture after the 3.11 disasters. Shimura always encouraged the 89ers to do more, and they were already doing a lot. Visiting relief shelters, helping to load food and medical supplies for victims, signing autographs for the elderly, conducting hoop clinics for school-age youths and cheerleading instruction for students kept Sendai players and staff members busy.

“Sendai's Takehiko Shimura deserves the MVP this season for helping the victims and showing what the bj-league is all about. The bj-league has said and stressed that it is ‘community-based,' " a longtime league observer told me days after the earthquake and tsunami.

“I never saw any of the teams being ‘community based’ until I saw Shimura’s tweets. It would be a great story for the bj-league to send out to the world. I think he is taking a leadership role and doing a great job. In one of his tweets, he has a picture with Hamaguchi and other members of the team. They were helping unload the trucks with aid supplies.

“He was the one who contacted the bj-league to tell (officials) everyone was safe, he’s helping the victims by volunteering himself and he’s tweeting about his city asking for help.”

Shimura is now the Sendai 89ers president. His commitment to his team, which currently plays in the B. League second division, and his community are a vivid reminder of kizuna.

In an article published this week by the Sendai-based Kahoku Shimpo, Shimura spoke about the 3.11 disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic and his outlook on overcoming these obstacles.

"We will always stand up even if there are difficulties," Shimura told the newspaper. "That is the strength of Tohoku people. We will continue to fight together."

Read other articles recalling the 3.11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in JAPAN Forward’s 10th anniversary series [3.11 Earthquake:Rebuilding], here.

Author:  Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward's [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays,  in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.