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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Okinawan seniors live hoop dreams

Apr. 10, 2017

Okinawa Prefecture has the highest concentration of people in Japan who play basketball. One local team, the Okinawan Ganju Star, takes pride in their senior sportsmen. The average age is 66 years old.

The Okinawan word ganju means strong, and reflects the mental and physical strength of the team. NHK met with them as they prepared for a national competition.

About fifteen hundred kilometers southwest of Tokyo lies the island chain of Okinawa.

In the center of mainland Okinawa, an island with many US military bases and personnel, basketball is part of the local culture.

It’s 8:00 pm, and the Ganju Stars gather to practice in the gym of a junior high school.

66-year-old Kenji Fukuhara, is founder and captain of the team.

He manages this unique group of basketballing granpas.

Referring to one player, Fukuhara says, “We call this guy ‘the magician under the hoop.’ He sinks baskets without even looking. But his magic may be wearing off.”

“He looks like Sylvester Stallone. Like Rocky, you know. He has muscles of steel, but right now his back hurts.”

Last but not least, Fukuhara points out his most trusted player.

“He knows more than anyone else about basketball," he says. "Sometimes he seems to have eyes in the back of his head.”

He's talking about the team’s top player, 68-year-old Yoshio Kohama.

Kohama seems to be having some back issues, too.

Kohama says, "I strained it about six months ago. It hasn’t completely healed yet.”

The Ganju Stars pass the ball, centering their plays around their point guard, Kohama.

Between 1945 and 1972, Okinawa was occupied by the US military after World War 2.

The team learned running-style basketball at the base, and used it to beat their opponents.

In their youth, they were all into street basketball.

They played friendly matches on US bases and developed their own unique style to compete with the tall American players.

Today, they’re evenly matched against a women’s team whose members are about 40 years younger.

Female player Erika Isa says, "It’s hard to keep up!”

Another female player, Chie Tokashiki, says, “They can really run, age is not an issue. They run more than us.”

When Okinawa was occupied by the US in the 1960s, Kohama lived very close to Futenma Air Base.

He says, “I learned by watching American players. I had a chance to see high-level basketball in action.”

But he has mixed feelings about the base.

An American driver would hit a local person crossing the street on a green light and be declared innocent," Kohama says. "The guilty driver would go back home to the US. The base had its benefits for someone like me who loves basketball. But I have mixed feelings.”

Later, Kohama became a high school teacher and helped coach the school's basketball team.

The sport has played a big role in his life. One memory in particular will always stay with him.

In 1973, the Japanese National Athletic Meet was held to commemorate Okinawa’s return to mainland Japan after the US occupation. Kohama played as a star member of Okinawa’s team. They crushed other Japanese teams with their running style of basketball and won the championship.

The sweeping victory really encouraged locals in the wake of Okinawa's return to Japan.

“It showed that our hard work paid off," Kohama says. "We’re not tall, but if we focus on technique, we can win. Knowing that has helped us to gain so much confidence. We’re proud that our names and photos, these snapshots, are part of the history of basketball in our prefecture.”

But their running style of basketball is taking a toll on their bodies as these men age.

The team captain, Fukuhara, hasn’t been able to run as well as he’d like since he had surgery on his left knee.

Despite his love for the game, Fukuhara has decided to retire.

A national competition held at the end of February was the last one the whole team played in.

Fukuhara has set up a hoop in his living room. He’s led the Ganju Stars for 25 years, and has made it to the national championships twice.

His wife, Mie Fukuhara, says to him, “My favorite memory is when you scored the winning point over the sound of the end whistle. Do you remember that?”

But lately, the team is slowing down. They've been losing the first round during tournaments.

There's two weeks till the next game, and the team’s anxiety level is up.

Ace player Kohama’s physical condition is worrying, so he goes for a check-up.

The results show arrhythmia, erratic beating of the heart, which means he can't join the coming final game.

Kohama says, "I don’t know what tomorrow will bring — the same is true for all of us on the team. Myself, Fukuhara, everyone. As you get older, you never know."

His absence puts the Ganju Stars at a disadvantage, but they decide to play anyway.

In preparation for next week’s game, younger members try to boost the team’s morale with inspirational messages.

Toshihiro Oyadomari says, "There's no tomorrow. This might be our last basketball game, but the important thing is a victorious spirit. Let’s be grateful for every single victory."

Tamiji Kuwabara says, "I look back on all the games we’ve played. Let’s stay together to the end. Let’s keep going! Thank you."

On the day of the game, sixteen teams made up of seniors from around the country have gathered to compete for the title.

Fukuhara says, "We'll win for sure!”

The first team they face comes from Aichi Prefecture. The team members are primarily in their early sixties, and they’ve won many victories.

The game begins, and the competition is fierce. The athletes' bodies can't keep up with their desire to win.

At the end of the first half, the Ganjyu Stars are losing 10 to 12.

During half-time, Fukuhara steps off the court to get advice from Kohama, who has been on the sidelines watching intently.

“Number 12 is moving well," Kohama says. "He might play the center, so move out there.”

Kohama points out the key player in the opposing team’s offense.

He shouts, “Stay on number 12!”

Following Kohama’s advice, team members bear down on the opposing players. This slows the rhythm of their opponents.

The Ganjyu Stars are able to recover their original form.

Late in the game, the team makes a comeback. Fukuhara is running flat-out, too.

The team bounces back and fights all the way to the semi-finals, but now they’re exhausted.

The team from Tokyo, some of whose athletes competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, is the favorite to win the championship.

Right from the start, the Ganju Stars face a strong offense, and are overwhelmed by the Tokyo team’s height advantage and polished technique.

With two minutes remaining, there’s a 16-point difference.

Bearing the pain, Fukuhara stays on court till the end.

And after the game, Okinawa’s “Basketball Grandpas” show their grace and poise with beaming smiles.

Fukuhara says, “It seems we’ve been playing basketball for a long time, but it feels like a short time, too. We’re from rural Okinawa. And I’m so proud we made it this far in the national championships. I think we’re the best. We did it.”