By Jason J. Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Almost four hours prior to the start of the Washington Wizards’ only visit to Portland to play the Trail Blazers earlier this month, a small group of fans, mainly young Japanese males, stood outside an upscale hotel in downtown Portland, hoping to get a glimpse of Wizards rookie forward Rui Hachimura.
One of the fans held up a picture of the 6-foot-8 rookie from his playing days at Gonzaga in Spokane. He hoped that Hachimura would stop and sign the photo before boarding the bus to the Moda Center. The fans lined up from the door of the hotel to a bus parked next to the sidewalk outside, as they anticipated the Wizards departing for the Moda Center.
Hachimura, whose mother is Japanese and father is from Africa, has been the center of attention this year as he became the first Japanese player to be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft and just the second Japanese player to ever be drafted in the NBA.
As a result of his instant celebrity status, Hachimura has secured high-profile sponsors, including Nissin Cup Noodles, Jordan Brand, trading card company Panini, and watch manufacturer G-Shock. He’s also signed a deal with luxury shoe retailer GOAT as a brand ambassador with the specific hope of drawing more East Asian customers for its burgeoning business overseas. Instead of getting paid a salary from GOAT, Hachimura has an online store on the site in which fans and customers can select from his pick of shoes.
Since the beginning of this season, Hachimura has been followed around by media detailing each game and each move he makes.
Prior to entering the arena, there were several fans with Washington Wizards jerseys or t-shirts with the number 8, Hachimura’s number, in addition to a smattering of Gonzaga jerseys with his old number. They lined up to get in to see if they could catch a glimpse of Hachimura warming up.
A Japanese sports journalist who flew all the way from Tokyo talked about Hachimura’s impact on sports back home. His trip stateside was not for the sole game as he explained he was going to fly to the East Coast the following day to cover the other Japanese player in the NBA, Yuta Watanabe of the Memphis Grizzlies. But he was not the only journalist that traveled across the Pacific to see Hachimura in person. There were many more media members than usual.
As Hachimura jogged out on the court for pregame stretching, fans trickled into the arena. Most of them were there early for Hachimura. For his part, Hachimura went through what seemed to be a normal routine pre-game of stretching, dribbling, and shooting from different areas of the court and then sat down with an assistant coach courtside to go over game video. Hachimura sat intently looking at the coach’s laptop, which showed different plays from a previous game. Like a student in class, Hachimura intently watched the video and slowly nodded his head when given instruction.
Moving from Spokane to Washington, D.C. was no problem for Hachimura. He told a local D.C. paper earlier this year, “I was happy when I got drafted to Washington. I knew that D.C. was the capital and knew it was diverse—it’s filled with different cultures. It’s a perfect team for me, coming from Japan to the U.S. only a few years ago. It’s also a good basketball city—a lot of people watch basketball down here.”
In order to ensure that the Wizards would be able to handle the additional media requests this season, it hired staffing specifically for Hachimura—a former Nippon Professional Baseball League play-by-play announcer is their Japanese Digital Correspondent. The Wizards have developed a website and podcast dedicated to the Japanese basketball fan that, of course, centers around Hachimura.
Hachimura participated in the World versus USA game during NBA All-Star Game Weekend last month and was heavily featured in the media.
A report from the NBA office in Asia after the All-Star Game stated that Hachimura’s jersey is the top seller in Japan with 24% of all jersey sales being a Wizards number 8. The jersey sells more than that of global icons LeBron James and Steph Curry.
Hachimura’s Japanese following is similar to that of Ichiro Suzuki when he first became a Seattle Mariner. There’s a devotional following in Japan and a clamor for news on the team and especially his play.
“Consistency is the big key,” Hachimura’s coach Scott Brooks explained to the media his big need during the pre-game news conference. Brooks acknowledged Hachimura’s talent, but qualified it with the need to consistently perform each and every game. As of the beginning of March, Hachimura has averaged 13.4 points in 40 games, and averaging six rebounds a game. He’s had a setback this year sitting out of 23 games after being kicked in the groin on a fluke play. In recent games, he’s scored 20 points in 30 minutes of play and then five days later failed to score at all in 40 minutes.
On his visit to Portland, Hachimura had an off night. On his first shot attempt, Hachimura drove the lane and attempted to make an off-balance layup, which did not go in. He pleaded with the referee that he was bumped while in the air to the hoop and a foul should have been called. His second try of the night was another shot from close distance, which was stuffed by Portland Trail Blazers center Hasaan Whiteside. Hachimura ended up scoring 11 points, making four shots and three free throws. The Wizards ended up losing to the Trail Blazers, 125-104.
Despite the loss, Hachimura’s fans were present throughout the arena. Every score he made resulted in a louder-than-normal cheer from the crowd, even though the Wizards were the visiting team. Families cheering their Japanese hero, including a father donning a Hachimura jersey over his regular work clothes and his three kids with similar jerseys, went home pleased that they were able to see him in person.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.