Photo/IllutrationRui Hachimura puts on a Washington Wizards cap at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on June 21. (Yuko Lanham/ The Asahi Shimbun)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The student was “always the first to come to the gym,” recalls Joji Sakamoto, 59.

Sakamoto was the coach for the junior high school basketball club in Toyama where Rui Hachimura began his amazing journey to become the first Japanese-born player to be selected in the first round of the National Basketball Association draft.

Sakamoto has reason to recall this episode about the boy who was to become a basketball sensation.

Hachimura has told Sakamoto about a man he first met at the gym of Gonzaga University, which he entered after graduating from a Japanese high school. One day, he went to the gym early as he did when he was a junior high school student and encountered a man who turned out to be an excellent basketball player. The man, who taught the Japanese player a variety of sophisticated techniques, was John Stockton, a Gonzaga alumnus and basketball legend who set NBA records for most career assists and steals.

When he heard Hachimura’s story about how the former NBA star treated him in their chance meeting, Sakamoto became convinced that his former student’s commitment to the sport would be understood and appreciated in the United States.

It was Sakamoto who first encouraged Hachimura to aim for the NBA, which is at the top of the world’s basketball hierarchy, and kept pressing him to pursue the ambitious goal.

Born to a father from the western African country of Benin and a Japanese mother, Hachimura endured some experiences that badly hurt his sensitive adolescent heart.

When he tried to inspire Hachimura to aim for the NBA, Sakamoto wanted his talented student to be part of a world where only his basketball performance counts, and he can develop his potential to the fullest.

Sakamoto, who runs an exterior finishing company in his native Toyama, served as an outside basketball coach for the junior high school team for nearly 30 years.

Sakamoto says he has always tried not to “defang” his students. He means that he has tried to accept the rebellious spirit of adolescent students as a natural part of their development process instead of trying to force them into a mold that is convenient for adults.

Sakamoto has been dealing with each of his students as a unique individual while thinking about his or her future.

The environment that placed great importance on individuality at his junior high school team greatly contributed to the development of Hachimura’s great athletic talent and potential, laying the foundation for his spectacular growth into a basketball powerhouse who stands 203 centimeters and weighs 104 kilograms.

We can hardly wait for the next chapter of his growth story.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 23

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.