Rio Grande Rivalry in Japan? Former Lobo and Aggie on opposing teams in championship

May 24—Hoops in New Mexico may be an afterthought this time of year.

No Aggies. No Lobos. No, not even the Greyhounds are playing right now.

But don't think there isn't a healthy dose of New Mexico basketball DNA on the court this weekend a mere 5,955 miles away (that's 9,583 kilometers for those international folks) in the 17,000-seat Yokohama Arena in Yokohama, Japan.

That is where the best-of-three championship series in Japan's B.League 1, this country's top professional league is taking place — starting late Friday night (Saturday in Japan) and continuing Sunday and Tuesday, if necessary — between the Ryukyu Golden Kings and the Hiroshima Dragonflies.

And what would a Japanese championship series be without three players who played college basketball in New Mexico?

Former UNM Lobo Alex Kirk is playing for defending champion Ryukyu while Hiroshima has a former NMSU Aggie Tshilidzi "Chili" Nephawe and former Eastern New Mexico Greyhound Isaiah Murphy.

Making matters more unique is that all three have Japanese citizenship — earned by each in recent years as a tool that provides flexibility for playing overseas because teams are often limited on the number of "imports," or players from outside a country, on a roster.

By each having completed the lengthy process of earning Japanese citizenship, it likely prolongs, or at a minimum provides options, for their professional careers.

Kirk, a 32-year-old 6-11 center from Los Alamos who played at UNM from 2010-11 through 2013-14, is now married and expecting his first child and playing in his seventh season in Japan's top league — the previous six, including multiple championships, with Toyota Alvark Tokyo. This is his first season with Ryukyu in Okinawa.

Kirk missed nearly three months this season with an injury, returning Jan. 31 and has been playing mostly off the bench with his season highs in points (23) and rebounds (12) coming in October.

He and Nephawe were in-state rivals — Kirk at UNM and Nephawe with the Aggies from 2010-11 through 2014-15. The Lobos held a 6-2 edge in the eight games in which their college careers overlapped.

Nephawe, a 6-10 center from South Africa who is 34, averaged 4.3 points and 4.5 rebounds this season for Hiroshima.

Murphy, a 6-5 guard from Tucson who is 26 and played one season (2019-20) at ENMU after two at Tucson's Pima Community College, averaged 4.0 points and 2.4 rebounds this season.

There is a YouTube channel that will carry each championship game, with a subscription fee. It can be found by searching B.League International on YouTube.