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John E. Gibson

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HARD DRIVES: Sports, public share mutual inspiration

by John E. Gibson (Mar 30, 2011)

When the Tohoku earthquake rocked a large portion of Japan the entire country was shaken.

The aftershocks that have been rattling the Tohoku and Kanto regions since 3/11 reflect the unsteadiness of the sports world, which in the ensuing days seemed to teeter on the edge of an astonishing collapse.

Suspended operations, seasons terminated and games canceled have forced teams to huddle together like families and contemplate an uncertain future.

Fears of radiation contamination spreading from the battered Fukushima nuclear plant sent many in the foreign sports contingent fleeing right alongside members of the general public.

From basketball to baseball, passport-gripping players and staff made a beeline to Tokyo airports, making a panic-driven run out of the country amid the tumultuous days following the quake.

Even NBA Japan hopped on the fast track out of town. An employee--now without a job there--said a week after the temblor the NBA's office in Shibuya Ward was shut down as part of a hastened Asian consolidation shift to Hong Kong.

While baseball dominated the headlines, not many were looking when the Japan Basketball League simply and perfunctorily brought a lead curtain down on its season. Officials impulsively declared the regular season over--with 24 games and two playoff rounds remaining--and proclaimed the Aisin Sea Horses the first-place team for the regular season.

That was it. No playoffs, no champion, no discussion. And no waiting to see how the country would come back from the devastation.

"I was very surprised they canceled the season," the Toshiba Brave Thunders Charles O'Bannon told Hard Drive by e-mail. "In the States we seem to play through times of adversity to offer victims and citizens the opportunity to take this tragedy off their minds for a few hours, but here it's just the opposite."

A number of foreign players from several Nippon Professional Baseball teams scattered, choosing to be safe before a few days of indecision might have caused them to be sorry.

Conflicting signals from the Japanese and U.S. governments and an air of impending doom played a role in compelling them to drop the ball and leave.

But basketball's bj-League gets kudos for its determination to forge ahead, limping toward its finish line despite three teams--the Saitama Broncos, Sendai 89ers and Tokyo Apache--suspending operations for the remainder of the season.

The damage in Sendai didn't spare the 89ers' office and arena, and the team was unable to continue.

While the Broncos and Apache suffered no direct damage from the quake, threats from aftershocks and rolling blackouts along with disrupted train service made it difficult to continue trying to hold games.

An Apache spokesperson said the club wouldn't "risk putting fans and players in jeopardy" to finish out its schedule.

The restoration effort in the Tohoku region is certain to take a number of years, and the path to economic recovery in the sports world will be arduous as well.

In baseball, the Pacific and Central leagues plan to open on April 12, focusing on a full schedule of games. Even in areas where fans can afford to make it out to games, there will be a reduction in the usual fanfare and electrical extravagance.

The start of baseball will provide more of a useful distraction than a productive form of support. Still, seeing all-out effort in competition can only inspire those struggling to recover from the devastation.

The vigor of Tokyo's workforce--pushing through the daily grind with less-than-zero personal space on diminished public transport--has been a driving force early on in the effort to return to normalcy.

But sports offer their own brand of strength, demonstrating the need to dig deep and inspiring the spirit to come back.

It's not the game that's important, it's the work ethic exhibited, the desire to take on challenges and the resolve to move forward that leave a lasting impression.

The sporting community will take a cue from the public and, more than ever, players will be working hard for the fans.

It'll be mutual inspiration.


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