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Embracing a troubled land Former Falls star learns to enjoy Japan's culture

All at once, in one numbing revelation, his entire team was blindsided. Huddled around the television, Jeff Parmer and his Hamamatsu Phoenix of Japan's premier basketball league had just finished watching film.

They took the DVD out, the channel just happened to be on the news and -- right before their eyes -- players watched devastation unfold.

"Shock," Parmer said in an interview via Skype. "We couldn't believe what we were seeing."

The next 24 hours, Parmer's Facebook page was blitzed with messages and wall posts. His phone flooded with a string of cross-globe calls. Everybody back home was worried.

Memo to Western New York: Parmer is fine. Better than fine, actually. The country's horrific earthquake-tsunami-nuclear reactor disaster has only made the former Niagara Falls standout embrace Japan more.

This new culture, which shook him initially, has become a way of life.

"The biggest thing is the love and support fans show," said Parmer, a two-time All-Western New York selection, in 2002 and 2003. "They're very loyal as well as the teams and organizations.

"I like it here. It's different."

After finishing at Florida Atlantic and playing two years in Spain, Parmer continues his rise overseas. Parmer finished the regular season averaging 17.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in Professional Basketball Japan, where he is an All-Star. Most important, his team is a blistering 39-5 with the postseason around the corner.

Sure, Parmer wants to play in the NBA someday. But right now, this is more than enough.

Parmer himself is safely away from danger, a good 10-hour drive. Still, three teams in his own conference were forced to cancel their entire seasons. American players on those teams fled, including one of Parmer's former college teammates. Sendai's Michael Bell, one of the top players in the league, is now playing for Qatar in a Middle East pro league. Said Parmer, "I'm just glad he's safe."

Parmer speaks like a man who is at peace in a country that is far from it.

"It's a different mood every day," he said. "Some days you hear they're in the process of cooling [the reactors] down. But I haven't been worried too much about it. I'll just focus what I can focus on. There's no point in worrying about it."

Maybe Parmer is so calm because the hard part's over. With the postseason nearing, he's fully assimilated. In Japan, he feels right at home. It just took awhile.

From the moment Parmer steps into the gym, the free education in cultural affairs begins. Every day, he must take off his shoes and point them toward the door. Same idea with vehicles and parking. Nobody drives straight into parking spots. Each driver must carefully back into the spot, Parmer says.

He's picking up the language, sort of. It's easy to count in Japanese, Parmer said. Once you pass 10, simply say the number "10" and add another digit to it. Other than that, Parmer's Japanese is choppy at best. He knows a few phrases, sure. But the written language remains a zig-zagged mystery, "a whole bunch of lines or something!" he jokes. Bowing replaces handshakes. Each morning, he sees kids shuttle off to school all in the same uniform. And forget chicken wings. He's learned to love dumplings. One new twist at a time, he adapted.

Mom was concerned when Parmer left for Japan. When he went away to college at Providence and then transferred to Florida Atlantic, where the versatile 6-foot-8 forward averaged 9.9 and 9.1 points in two seasons, she knew what to expect. This was different.

After talking to her son in weekly phone calls, Lisa McGrady stopped worrying.

"He's excited," said McGrady, who is related to the NBA's Tracy McGrady. "I can hear it in his voice. He's in good spirits. He's satisfied out there."

Parmer's league is ultracompetitive, stocked with players fighting for their basketball lives. Each team boasts three or four American players.

"Being in Japan right now is an upgrade from where he was," said current Niagara Falls coach Sal Constantino, who keeps in touch with Parmer. "He's really climbing the ladder over there. It's getting to a point where he picks and chooses where he wants to go."

With his girlfriend in Japan with him, Parmer got used to his surroundings. His coach, Kazuo Nakamura, can't speak any English. But Parmer communicates with him through a translator. A strong relationship developed. Nakamura cares about the Americans' lives and tries to help in tough times. When disaster struck, he canceled multiple practices. Nakamura could tell the mood just wasn't right.

And this second half of the season is when Parmer truly learned the essence of the Japanese people. When Hamamatsu players engineered charity events throughout the city for the relief efforts, Parmer expected to get pocket change. Something like a bell-ringer outside Wal-Mart.

Instead, random citizens handed him $50 bills. One lady donated $100. He couldn't believe it.

"They're willing to help out," Parmer said. "They're definitely not shy giving money. People were so generous in giving money. I was surprised how much people were giving at one time. I really like that about this culture."

Parmer doesn't get homesick any more. Next month, he'll be back in Niagara Falls for the offseason, back where he can read the words on a dinner menu and not worry about tsunamis.

But still, he's almost certain he'll be back in Japan again. The culture, the people, the kindness, he loves it all. Other players may be second-guessing themselves by now. Not Parmer.

"I love playing basketball," he said, "so why stop doing it?"

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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