Japan pro teams add spice to Camp Foster’s Oktoberfest
By DAVE ORNAUER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 15, 2007
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Bryan Simpson played his first interservice basketball game during the 2003 Martin Luther King Invitational Tournament at the Foster Field House.
He played his first professional game there as well, on Saturday night during a Basketball Japan League exhibition game pitting Simpson’s Ryukyu Golden Kings against the Tokyo Apache.
“It’s funny. It’s like wow,” said Simpson, 23, of Stone Mountain, Ga., a former senior airman who was assigned to Kadena Air Base’s 353rd Operational Support Squadron until the summer, when he signed a one-year deal with the Kings.
“I played my first game here. This one feels like that one did,” Simpson said prior to Saturday’s game, which the Kings lost 97-73.
The Kings are an expansion franchise in the bjLeague. It includes 10 teams in two divisions, with franchises dotting the Japanese map from Sendai in northeastern Honshu to Naha on Okinawa.
The teams feature roughly a 50-50 mix of Japanese and foreigners. Most of the coaches are foreigners — including the Apache’s Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a former NBA player and father of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
Saturday’s game plus one Sunday afternoon coincided with Foster’s Oktoberfest celebration held over the weekend.
Having the bjLeague’s first games on the island at the Foster Field House was designed as a “give-back to the military” but also a way to attract American and Japanese fans. About 1,000 people saw Saturday’s exhibition.
“It’s a good showcase for the bjLeague to all the folks on Okinawa,” Kings coach Hernando Planells said. “We want a good following of Americans and Japanese.”
“It’s a perfect fit for us,” said MCCS Semper Fit program director Steve Rowland.
“We wanted to give something back to the military and we also want GIs to come out and support us,” Simpson said.
The atmosphere at Foster Field House resembled that of an NBA game, with loud music and dance groups performing during breaks along with giveaways and a halftime half-court shooting contest.
“It’s great that they have pro sports on Okinawa. It gives something to Okinawans and Americans at a different level than the military,” Kadena Middle School substitute teacher Will Ware said.
Kadena High School senior Brittany Gillam said Saturday’s contest was her first professional game. “It’s pretty cool,” she said. “No question, I was coming here right away when I first heard about this.”
Bryant, 53, a Philadelphia native, will enter his third season as Apache coach. He’s taken his team to U.S. bases frequently for exhibition games against base varsity teams and he calls such visits his “duty.”
“No doubt about it,” said Bryant, who played for eight seasons in the NBA. “This is our duty. They (bases) have been so great to us, letting us come here and play ball. This is great for us, and for Americans who are so far from home.”
Seven-time All-Marine shooting guard Barry Celestine said he’d like to give playing bjLeague ball a try. “I should be out there playing with these boys,” he said. “They’re pretty good. The Kings, they’ll be all right once they get the jitters out and get used to each other.”
The Ryukyu Golden Kings open the bjLeague’s season on Nov. 3 against the Oita Heat Devils of Kyushu at the Okinawa Convention Center in Urasoe. Tickets can be purchased at Lawson or Family Mart, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about the Kings at http://www.okinawa-basketball.