Looking dashing in suit and tie, Rui Hachimura stepped up to the stage with a bright smile, greeting the legendary basketball player, Julius Erving. Erving had just announced that Hachimura had won the 2019 Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award, and was asked by the ESPN announcer how it felt to shake Erving’s hand.
Hachimura replied without missing a beat – “His hand is very big.”
The announcer laughed. The audience laughed. And Hachimura beamed as he looked at the award in front of him.
This is the confidence of a young man who is about to become the first Japanese to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft on June 20, 2019.
Only three years earlier, that confidence was not so apparent.
Born of a mother from Japan and a father from Benin, a nation in West Africa, Hachimura grew up in Toyama, a relatively lightly populated part of Western Japan. In a culture where the phrase, the “nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” is often thought or heard, Hachimura, due to his size, his skin color and his hair, stuck out.
“My family was the only blacks in our prefecture,” Hachimura said in this CBS article. “A lot of people looked at me weird. They’d never seen black people before.”
Although baseball is Hachimura’s first love, he found that basketball and its constant movement and flow allowed him to leverage his boundless energy and athleticism. A star on the Meisei High School team in Sendai, Hachimura took his team to three straight All Japan high school tournament titles. At an appearance at the 2014 FIBA U17 in Dubai, the then 16-year-old Hachimura caught the eye of basketball scouts, including the assistant coach at Gonzaga University, Tommy Lloyd.
“Moved well, really good hands, could dribble the ball, had a normal follow-through, strength and explosion,” Lloyd said in The Spokesman-Review. “A lot of great tools.”
Major college programs wanted Hachimura – Arizona, LSU, Vanderbilt and my hometown team St. John’s. But in the end, Lloyd helped convinced Hachimura to come to Gonzaga, which houses a powerful NCAA Division 1 basketball team made up in good part by players outside of America.
“I like that this program has teammates and coaches who are like family,” Hachimura said in The Gonzaga Bulletin. “I knew there were a lot of international players playing here and they know the process of developing international players.”
The 18-year old moved to Washington State in America in early 2016 and he had significant challenges. Hachimura had never lived overseas. He had been to the US only once. He spoke very little English. His first task was to become eligible to even enter Gonzaga as his acceptance was dependent on passing the SAT test, the most common aptitude test used by universities and colleges in America. After several attempts, Hachimura scored well enough to satisfy Gonzaga in May, 2016, and announced that he would move to the United States to enter Gonzaga’s English Language Center that month, according to the Japan Times.
With hopes of playing as a freshman in the 2016-2017 season, Hachimura had to improve his English so he could at least understand instructions from coaches and talk to teammates. As a result, he had to miss 50% of the team’s practices so he could attend Gonzaga’s English language program.
In the early stages, it didn’t appear the language lessons were working, as explained in late 2017 by Coach Mark Few in The Gonzaga Bullettin.
He’s a professional at nodding and acting like he knows. Then when you pin him down he has no idea. So I’ve been trying to pin him down a lot to make sure, because we have to make sure. But he’s getting better inch by inch.
Hachimura was also adjusting to the faster, more aggressive level of play in America, according to Few.
He’s pretty laid back. At his size, he needs to be a physical entity… that’s tough to match up with and tough to block out… he’s just got to get a little more intense.
Or as Lloyd remarked more succinctly, “Early on, he looked like Tarzan, but sometimes was playing like Jane.”
Today, Hachimura is definitely playing like Tarzan, and will become not only a potential piece in an NBA team’s success in 2019, but a potential marketing bonanza for Hachimura, particularly in his native Japan. Kyodo News reporter Akiko Yamawaki said that Hachimura’s impending draft selection is big news in Japan.
All of Japan finds it so exciting. Everybody thinks, everybody knows he’s going to change the culture of Japanese basketball. It would be really huge news. When Ichiro signed with Seattle, (Shohei) Ohtani signed with the Angels, I think it would be the same kind of news in Japan.
And after an NBA season under his belt, who knows what Hachimura can accomplish as a member of Team Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.