JUST PREPS : Land of the Bouncing Ball : As Basketball Grows and Becomes Wildly Popular in Japan, a High School Team Comes to L.A. to See How It's Really Done

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When they walked into the musty gym at Gardena High on Monday, the members of Japan's Sendai Shiritsu High basketball team were greeted by a collective "Whoa."

Wearing purple warmups with a pink trim, they looked like a neon sign with legs, and the players on the Gardena boys' basketball team, one of five opponents for Sendai on its eight-day visit that ends Friday, could only shade their eyes from the glare.

In their world of dark gyms, black shoes and dark green uniforms, this Day-Glo group from the Far East was far too surreal.

"They sure are bright," Gardena forward Alton Hamilton said about Sendai's warmups. "But they're kinda nice. Hey, I like 'em."

There was more to like after watching the 12 players, a junior national team equivalent recruited from across Japan to play for Sendai. They were ahead by eight points at halftime and beat Gardena, 50-28.

"I was surprised how patient they were," Hamilton said. "They always made the right passes and got the open shot. And they were always moving."

They have been moving since they got to Southern California on Jan. 5, trying to get their fill of both basketball and America. They got a large dose of the sport, going 1-3 against Westchester, Fairfax, Gardena and Dorsey--they play Hamilton today--and with a full schedule, were doing their best to experience Americana, or at least the Los Angeles version.

"I want them to learn as much about the sport as they can," Sendai Coach Hisao Sato said through an interpreter. "Learn the parts of the game we do not have in Japan."

Senai's tour, and a visit by an American team on alternating years, is the work of Roy Iwami, an insurance broker from Los Angeles who first took a team of Japanese-American girls to Japan in 1977.

After watching the Japanese dominate his squad that year, he returned in 1978 with a boys' team and found great success. They have been alternating visits every year since, aided by Ray Shimizu, who has coordinated fund-raising for the trips for the last 11 years.

"I thought it was just going to be a one-year deal, but everybody on both sides wanted it to continue," Iwami said.

The benefit for the American teams, who have dominated in recent visits, is an opportunity to visit another country and experience a different culture. The same applies for the Japanese, but with added emphasis put on improving their skills on the court.

"We bring them over here to learn the fundamentals and to watch the different style of play," Sato said. "We don't have the power game, the inside play that they do in America. And we want them to witness that."

Basketball is growing rapidly in Japan and has replaced baseball as the most popular sport among high school students. Just as Europe's love for soccer has spread to Asia, America has sent images of Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley and the desire to be like Mike.

"They are starting to show more and more NBA games on TV in Japan, and the sport is growing rapidly," Iwami said. "But the players and coaches are still learning."

Point guard Makoto Nagayama, 18, is one of the Japanese players who seems to have learned plenty. The 5-foot-11 team captain is easily the team's top player and, along with 6-11 center Takashi Shinohara, is touted as a future member of Japan's team for the 2000 Olympics.

Nagayama scored 29 points in Sendai's 102-100 double-overtime loss to Westchester last Friday, 24 of them coming on three-point shots. His game, which he has been honing since he was 9, has a distinctively American flavor. He likes to leave his feet and dump passes to his teammates, loves slashing through the lane and trying off-balance shots and was the lone Japanese player slinging behind-the-back passes on fast breaks.

But Sendai's game is limited because the Japanese have not learned to play inside like the American teams. Despite having two players taller than 6-10, Sendai is mostly a guard-oriented team that plays better on the run than in a half-court offense. The Japanese rarely look inside because their big men seldom muscle for position.

Nagayama and his teammates are also missing another characteristic of the American style.

Against Westchester the team lost a chance to win a game in regulation when the scorer's table did not start the clock on time, giving Westchester an extra 10 seconds to take its final shot.

No Japanese player or coach complained to the officials, although they all saw the error. And after two tiring overtime periods, the first thing the players did after shaking hands with their opponents was bow to the crowd of about 50 people, thanking them for their support.

"In Japan these players will play in front of crowds of 5,000 people," Shimizu said, "and there is great respect there for the fan support and the game. They are very appreciative of just the opportunity to play."

The best way for Sendai's players to learn more about basketball is to play, but they also learn by watching, as they did last Friday at the Laker-Utah Jazz game at the Forum.

They came away impressed.

"The way the point guards control the whole team is something not many teams in Japan have, and also the power game of both teams surprised them," Sato said of his team. "They can watch it on television, but it is not the same."

Laker forward George Lynch greeted the team for a few minutes afterward to sign autographs and, although the players appreciated his time, Lynch's visit failed to get a vote as the night's biggest thrill.

"The Laker Girls," 6-5 forward Takenori Shinohara said, also mentioning that Sendai is an all-boys' school. "We got to take pictures with them outside the arena."

Although the trip was for basketball, there is much more. The coaching staff took a trip to Las Vegas over the weekend, while the players stayed in pairs with American families.

Most of the families had sent their sons to Japan in recent years, including Steven Kurata, whose son Kyle traveled there last year. He hosted Shinohara and Nagayama and, after fulfilling their desire to shop, took them on a bonus adventure.

"I took them [pistol] shooting," said Kurata, who is a licensed trainer of law enforcement officers. "All firearms are illegal in Japan, so they had never shot a gun before."

Shinohara and Nagayama fired round after round from Kurata's 9mm and .45 handguns, and have the targets and shell casings to prove it to their families back in Japan.

"That was great fun," Shinohara said. "We were shooting at targets 25 [feet] away and I was able to hit sometimes."

The team also visited the Japanese-American museum, heard a speech from UCLA Coach Jim Harrick after watching the Bruins practice and left one day open for more shopping.

"I think the whole trip is a real education for the players," Shimizu said. "They are seeing and learning things that they would never have before, and improving basketball in their country by playing against good teams and then taking what they have learned back to Japan."

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