As we prepare ourselves to what could possibly be a first NBA basketball championship for Canada and the city of Toronto, I reflect back some 43 years ago while touring Japan with the Pointer Sisters and what the game means to me and a world coming to terms with a sport then on the cusp of international recognition.
It’s summer 1976 and the Pointer Sisters are touring Japan. Each city comes with a sound check and early concert. For us guys in the trio – Chester Thompson drums, Jeff Breeh bass, me - piano and road crew – Louis Lind etc. – there’s plenty time to kill. “The girls” as they were affectionately called went about doing whatever they did during off hours. The rest of us were on a discovery mission. For me, it meant finding a game of “hoops.” Tokyo was overwhelming, mostly given over to shopping and back alley eating, yet when we hit that rails it was all about ‘game on.’
Osaka, I found a YMCA. I begged the front desk for use of the gym. At first, they were apprehensive reciting membership rules, but much like every stop throughout the country, they knew who we were. Our visit was carried on tv. The young woman relented and handed me a child’s size basketball and directed me to the gym. Before me, eight-foot goals. Nothing seemed right, but for this desperate young man, anything was possible. As I started shooting several young men began encouraging me to dunk the ball. This I did for their amusement and with ease. Ten-foot goal? I could barely touch the rim. I truly play from beneath the rim – no lift in these shoes. I scored a round of applause each time I improvised a dunk. Even with an enthusiastic audience, this wasn’t basketball.
A day or so later we find ourselves in the port city Kobe, known for its rare beef. I abandon the hotel and walk along the ocean side into a mist, eventually coming to an overpass and basketball goal situated mid- center a dirt floor - chicken feathers mixed in the blotches of mud. From below I look up at a rim absent a net and thought how fine it would be to just shoot a few against a backdrop of shipping vessels and expansive baseball netting another side of the overpass. Then it happens. A young man in baseball garb runs over, smiles and gestures at the goal, again smiles and runs back into a shed. A moment later he returns with a basketball and hands to me. My heart sinks. I’m grinning at the world and it’s smiling back. I begin shooting and dreaming I’m back in LA where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is hanging out and notching a bucket here and there when suddenly the shed turns into a clubhouse and a full cadre of baseball players, dressed to the nines run out and start tossing and fielding baseballs. Then batting practice. You hear the whack of the bat and instead or a soaring 300 ft blast – a fifty-foot blast into netting. It’s Japan – there’s no space.
As time ran away from me, I walk over and return the ball. It was then several players ran over and hugged me. My God; sports, players, passerby’s, friendship, - it was at that moment I knew the world was much smaller than imagined and the things that link us all are the simplest and least complicated. A song, a ball, a location, and good people.
Bill King – Soul Nation