Okinawa basketball rivals gain strength through unity
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Imagine players from two of the Pacific’s fiercest high school rivals, Kadena and Kubasaki, playing on the same basketballteam?
Next, imagine a cobra marrying a mongoose. Or Ohio State fans belting out a rousing chorus of Michigan’s fight song, “Hail to the Victors.”
Yet a handful of players from the Okinawa teams have played together each summer since 2007, shelving their differences to work together to improve their individual games, their team performances, the level of ball on the island and learn about getting along with one another.
“Rivals on the court, but friends off it, even though they go to the other school,” said Kubasaki senior center Kentrell Key, a veteran of the summer program called Oki Ice, which last summer fielded six current Kadena and five current Kubasaki players.
“You practice all the time with them, you actually get to know each other and I think that actually helped me and all the others,” added Key’s teammate, senior guard Kai Yamaguchi.
Formed in summer 2007 by former Kubasaki assistant Keith Richardson, the program is now run by current Kadena assistant Ray Broughton, a chief warrant officer 2nd class who played All-Army ball in the 1990s, and Andrea Nix, wife of perennial All-Marine center Jelani Nix.
They work on skills development, coaches and players said, as well as suit up for games against Japanese and American adult club teams — 52 last summer, with Oki Ice going 42-10, including a second-place finish in a Marine Corps Community Services Camp Commander’s Cup tournament.
“You build more than playing skills,” Broughton said. “Teambuilding skills, life-building skills, you learn how to play in other systems. That’s what life is about.”
Kadena’s 6-foot-5 All-Far East forward Jason Sumpter, primarily a post player last year, said he improved his handling of the ball and his play on the wing as a big man, thanks to the program.
“The experience, that’s going to help players develop a better game,” he said. “We’re doing drills we otherwise wouldn’t do. The competition was different because it was adults; it helped strengthen our game, bring our game to the next level.”
The program, Broughton said, is similar to what one might get in the States at a summer camp, an AAU league or other developmental circuit.
“Having parents be in the military shouldn’t be a reason (their kids) lose out,” Broughton said.
Already heavy with battle honors — Pacific-record nine Far East Division I Tournament titles each — Kadena and Kubasaki have picked up even more laurels since the summer program began: They’ve combined to win two Hong Kong International School Holiday Tournaments, with two runner-up finishes; two New Year Classic and two Okinawa-American Shootout titles. Last year, Kadena won the D-I title; this season, Kubasaki (12-0) is off to its best start in 23 years.
Three former Kubasaki players and two ex-Kadena players who’ve passed through the summer program are now playing junior college ball.
Broughton feels Kadena and Kubasaki can do even better. “We have the talent on island to meet in the (Far East D-I) championship every year,” he said. “As the program continues, our teams will get better and better every year.”
Kadena’s head coach Robert Bliss praised Broughton for his efforts, mostly for the bonding between the rival schools’ players.
“It’s great, seeing them (players) work together, build a relationship between the schools, getting along and respecting each other,” he said.
Jon Fick, Kubasaki’s coach since 2006-07, said players can’t help but improve in any venture that means spending time on the court. “The more games the kids can get in the summer, the better,” he said. “The more game decisions they make, the better.”
And as their games improve, the bonds between the players continue to rise above their school differences, which to many unfamiliar with the summer program might find nigh onto impossible to accomplish.
Perhaps it’s the Marines vs. Air Force perception, or the fact that the schools are three miles apart. The players might go to the same church, or maybe they went to middle school together.
“We got together and we decided we have to be friends” if the Oki Ice program is to continue and be successful, Key said.
That being said, “There’s always going to be a Kubasaki-Kadena rivalry in whatever sport; that’s just the way it is. We would like to approach it as just another game, but the two communities are so close.”
“Off the court, we can be cool and all, but on the court, we’re still rivals,” Yamaguchi said.
“The rivalry will never go completely away,” Key said. “It’s going to keep going. It’s a tradition.”