By Mark Clark
The undefeated Tri-City Blackhawks will tip-off against the Shizuka Gymrats in an independent American Basketball Association game tonight at Mother Mary Gym at 318 Seale Road. The Gymrats –from near Tokyo, Japan – are a seven-year-old squad and is the only Japanese team in the league. The team was 2-18 last season.
The two teams will meet in the Chamber of East Alabama “Night at the Gym” event at Mother Mary Gym. Adult tickets for the event are $10. Children, 12 and under, will be admitted for $5. Game time is set for 7 p.m. ET. For more information, contact Father Tom Weiss at 334-520-0031.
The Tri-City Blackhawks is a team of players from Phenix City, Columbus and Fort Benning. The team is currently 5-0 overall.
The Gymrats are owned by Takuya Okado who is also a member of the team. He says the players flew to the United States to participate in the league on their own. The season lasts for 20 games from November to March and all of the Gymrats games are away contests.
The team survives by making sleeping arrangements at homes of volunteers and in hotels that will allow the players to sleep on the floor. Transportation is a string of rental cars. The Gymrats made do with this patchwork lifestyle through last season and is doing so again this season. The plane tickets plus room and board cost 300,000 to 500,000 yen per player with each player paying his own way.
“Winning two games while going through that kind of hardship feeds the souls of the young players,” said Okada. “I want to start a sub-club for primary school and junior high kids and give more people the chance to compete in the world.”
Okada crossed the Pacific in pursuit of his own hoop dreams in 2000, hoping to make it in the National Basketball Association, but returned home disappointed. He then played professional basketball with the Saitama Broncos until he headed back to the United States in 2005 to play for a team in the ABA, which is a league with more than a few NBA hopefuls on its rosters.
While Okada never made it to the NBA, he was inspired by the professionalism, the deep pool of talent at each level and the standard of play in the United States. He decided that he wanted to give more Japanese players a taste of “world-class basketball.” So, in 2010, he founded the Gymrats in the city of Shizuoka and took it to North America to compete in the ABA.
The Gymrats roster is a collage of different backgrounds and ages, including university students, people with regular jobs and member of Japan’s national deaf basketball team. Some of the players have left the team over the years to play in Japan’s own professional league, but most are like Okada – dedicated to the dream of making it in the United States and hopefully the NBA.