Los Alamos native Alex Kirk is pretty used to winning championships, having been a member of three Mountain West title teams during his time with the University of New Mexico.
But grabbing one as a professional eluded him until this year, when he led Alvark Tokyo to the Japanese B-League crown. He earned the finals MVP after scoring 23 points with six rebounds in the championship game, an 85-60 win over the Chiba Jets.
“It’s different,” Kirk said of the pro success. “Obviously, when you win overseas, it’s a bit better, career-wise. You get a little bonus. You get one and it means you get a better contract, which is nice.”
Still, it’s hard to compare to those Lobos days, he said.
“Some of those relationships, playing with Cam (Bairstow) and Hugh (Greenwood) and Tony (Snell), playing for the home team and being able to represent was special back then.”
That’s the way it was for some of his Alvark teammates who were local players.
“Winning over there, you do create a bond with these guys, but I wasn’t one of the guys crying on the sideline after the game,” Kirk said. “You knew how much it meant to them. For them, they’re at the top of their country professionally. And playing for Toyota, it was a small victory for them and they treat us really well, and I’m happy that we were able to give back to them.”
The season was Kirk’s fourth professionally and third outside of the U.S. in a career that has also taken him to Italy, Turkey and China.
While the level of play wasn’t quite as high as other leagues, Kirk himself performed at a high level, playing in all 60 regular-season games and averaging 16.2 points with 8.8 rebounds to earn all-league honorable mention status.
“It was a really good year for me,” he said. “I’m definitely happy I did good things. It wasn’t the most fun I ever had playing. I played in a European system with a Serbian coach. So there were lots of practices, a lot of hard work. It was good for me to get my game where I wanted it.”
The team played a fast-paced, ball movement-based offense that focused on sharing the ball to create open looks. So no one player put up huge numbers, which made landing the regular-season and playoffs honors all the more meaningful.
“Obviously, I played really well,” Kirk said of his playoff run. “It’s hard to get recognition from the Japanese League because they really take care of their own. Only one import can make the post-season team. But I had a terrific season and (the playoffs) was a really good way to close it out. I put a lot of work into this season so to get some recognition was really special.”
It’s also opened the door for more opportunities for next season, which isn’t all that far off.
“I have some pretty good offers,” Kirk said. “There’s interest in China. The European leagues aren’t quite ready so they haven’t quite got around to making offers. And the team that I played for this year brought back a really good offer. Hopefully it all gets done in the next few days.”
And, all in all, Japan was a interesting place to play.
“It’s definitely a different world over there,” Kirk said. “A big, big culture shock. It’s so clean over there. Everything is very disciplined. Everything goes in lines and everyone follows the rules. It’s nice, a good place to live. Basketball-wise, a different world. A different game.”
And living in Tokyo was an unforgettable experience.
“It was Tokyo, one of the most amazing cities in the world,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff to do outdoors, the transportation is unreal. Everything is figured out. Every train is on time, every bus is on time. I had a car, but most of the time, I was absolutely exhausted.”
Returning to Los Alamos was a change in his well-established routine, but it was a welcome one.
“My mom made green chile enchiladas and I watched the last quarter of the (first) NBA finals game,” Kirk said of his return home. “In the off season, I rest and relax. My body is absolutely destroyed. Jet lag has been a rough. Overall, I don’t do too much. I just come up here and hide for the most part.”