BASKETBALL/ Japanese hoop teen stars move to U.S. to ‘Be Like Hachimura’

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BASKETBALL/ Japanese hoop teen stars move to U.S. to ‘Be Like Hachimura’ By SHUHEI NOMUR

BASKETBALL/ Japanese hoop teen stars move to U.S. to ‘Be Like Hachimura’

By SHUHEI NOMURA/ Staff Writer

March 17, 2024 at 07:00 JST

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Photo/IllutrationShuto Sakihama of Fukuoka Daiichi High School celebrates with a teammate after winning the national high school basketball championship on Dec. 29, 2023. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illutration
  • Photo/Illutration

Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe slam-dunked through the glass ceiling for Japanese basketball players to make it to the NBA. 

Now, they have inspired a succession of young Japanese hoopsters to chase their own dreams of playing in March Madness and the NBA by attending prep schools in the United States. 

Many of these top Japanese prospects are aiming to enroll in an NCAA Division I powerhouse university. 

The “study abroad” path has been considered a shortcut to the world’s premier basketball league.

FUKUOKA HIGH SCHOOL A PIPELINE

With the rise of star players such as Keisei Tominaga, a key member of the Akatsuki Japan national team who plays for the University of Nebraska Huskers, an increasing number of young basketballers are taking up the challenge.

Fukuoka Daiichi High School in Fukuoka won the national high school basketball championship at the end of last year.

Its standout player, Shuto Sakihama, a third-year student, has been studying English on his own since junior high school with the goal of studying in the United States.

Head coach Takashi Ideguchi recalled with a laugh that when Sakihama entered the high school, he said, “It’s easier to answer in English.”

Sakihama will travel to the United States at the end of March as a recipient of the Slam Dunk Scholarship established by Takehiko Inoue, a manga artist known for the hit “Slam Dunk” series.

The scholarship was founded in 2006 to support young athletes who have the will and ability to continue competing in college or professionally after high school.

Recipients are sent to attend prep schools in the United States, or schools that prepare players to go to college, where they compete against their peers and become accustomed to an English-immersion environment.

If their performance there is recognized, they are scouted by universities.

Sakihama will be in the 17th class of the scholarship recipients. 

Narito Namizato, one of the scholarship’s first-year recipients, is also a graduate of the same high school as Sakihama.

Namizato, who currently plays for the B.League’s Gunma Crane Thunders, went to the United States on the scholarship in 2008.

Namizato was one of Japan’s top high school players at the time. He was able to play well in the United States, but the academic barriers were high.

Ideguchi said, “Over there, if you don't study, they won’t let you practice. I think it was a great experience for Namizato, but maybe it was a little too early for him.”

At that time, studying in the United States after graduating from high school was perceived as “a betrayal to Japanese universities,” Ideguchi said. “In other words, you are no longer on the path to be selected for the Japanese national team.”

But Ideguchi has always encouraged his high school players to take on challenges that would lead to their growth, even if Japanese universities frowned on them.

Youngsters such as Namizato, as well as Jimmy Hayakawa, who also graduated from Fukuoka Daiichi High School and was a second-year scholarship recipient, had high ability, which Ideguchi thought a Japanese university would not know how to utilize. 

Fukuoka Daiichi High School alums are not the only young hoop stars who have paved a way for others on the court.

DIVERSIFIED PATHS TO THE PROS

Yuki Togashi, a point guard playing for the B.League’s Chiba Jets Funabashi, after graduating from a junior high school in Niigata Prefecture, chose to attend NBA superstar Kevin Durant’s alma mater, Montrose Christian School, in Maryland.

Watanabe, who plays for the Memphis Grizzlies, moved to the United States after graduating from Jinsei Gakuen High School in Kagawa Prefecture.

While playing at a prep school in Connecticut, Watanabe was recruited by George Washington University, an NCAA Division I school, and seized the opportunity, which led him on a course to the NBA.

Hachimura, who now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, moved to the United States after graduating from Meisei High School in Sendai, to play for the national powerhouse Gonzaga University Bulldogs.

As their challenges and successes bore fruit, studying in the United States has gradually become less uncommon, and paths to it have been diversified--from high school clubs to B.League youth teams to private club teams.

According to an overseas website, about seven Japanese, including Tominaga, are currently enrolled in NCAA Division I schools.

Aima Sekiya, 17, wants to join the list soon.

Sekiya, who is a member of the Chiba Jets’ U18 team, is one of those aspiring to go to the United States.

He is currently enrolled in a high school correspondence course. He practices individually in the morning and participates in the top team’s training sessions during the day.

“First off, I will stand out from the rest of the youth team,” Sekiya vowed. “I will play in a way that people will think I am the best, then I will sell myself overseas.”

There are also private clubs active in the trend, such as the Tokyo Samurai, which is based in Tokyo and supports players’ dreams to play in the United States, and Boogie’s, which sends players to top-level high schools in the United States. 

Sekiya was approached by the Chiba Jets because of his performance with the Tokyo Samurai.

Ideguchi takes the diversification of study abroad programs positively.

“It is good that there are so many different places,” he said. “I think it is a good thing about Japan that we let young people take up a challenge and tell them, ‘Come home if you fail.’”

“It would be a waste for a child with ability to settle in a place below his or her ability and feel comfortable with just doing that,” he said.

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