By Jason Cruz
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Welcome to another edition of The Layup Drill. In this edition, we take a look at the first Masters champion from Japan, two NBA stars with Asian backgrounds, and a UFC champion losing her title.
Hideki Matsuyama makes monumental Masters champ
Hideki Matsuyama became the first Masters champion from Japan when he pulled away from the field last month. Matsuyama finished a shot ahead of the field to earn the championship.
A notable photo from the final scenes of Matsuyama’s victory was his caddie, Shota Hayafuji, bowing on the 18th green of the Augusta National.
“I bowed to the course mainly because I was thankful. I wasn’t thinking about doing it and it just happened—–like an instinct,” Hayafuji told Golf.com.
According to reports, Matsuyama did not have time to celebrate as he was heading back home the next day. The next morning, he was seen at the Atlanta Airport with the famed winner’s green jacket in tow.
Also last month, Matsuyama received the Prime Minister’s Award in Japan. The award was bestowed on him by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for becoming the country’s first male major champion.
“[I]f this win can provide a sliver of hope to people, and inspire more kids, or even just one kid to want to try and play golf in the future, that makes me extremely happy,” said Matsuyama.
With the Olympics still set for Tokyo this summer, some have wondered whether Matsuyama will be the one to have the honor of lighting the Olympic Games cauldron during the opening ceremonies.
He has committed to playing for his home country in the sport of golf during the Summer Olympics.
Bench players providing big spark: Jordan Clarkson and Yuta Watanabe
The NBA is heading into the playoffs a little later than normal due to the scheduling alterations made due to the pandemic. But the season has seen Jordan Clarkson and Yuta Watanabee make significant contributions to their teams.
In his second year in Utah, Clarkson has blossomed into an important asset off of the bench for the Jazz. Clarkson sports a career high in average points per game with 17 and is considered to be the favorite to win the “Sixth Man of the Year” award. A part of his scoring production comes from the three-point line, where he averages another career best three makes per game.
The seventh-year pro has made a concerted effort in improving on his defense and is a quality defender for the Jazz. But it’s his explosiveness off of the bench that is valued by Utah, a team that is tied for the top record in the Western Conference in the NBA.
Watanabe has been one of the only bright spots for the Toronto Raptors this season. Forced to play in Florida due to the pandemic, fans from afar have been excited for Watanabe’s presence on the team. The 26-year-old forward spent a couple seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies prior to signing on with the Raptors in 2020.
Watanabe played his collegiate basketball at George Washington University after a year at a prep school coming to the United States from Japan. His main goal growing up was to play in the NBA.
The 6-foot-9 forward is a key bench player for the Raptors this season. While his statistics may not be as large as Clarkson’s, he has been a spark for the Raptors providing energy and effort. His play has also helped with his enormous popularity around the globe. Already popular in Canada, the Raptors are big in Japan due in part to Watanabe’s presence on the roster. Similar to the Washington Wizards’ Rui Hachimura, the team’s status has been elevated in Japan due to a player from the country. This year, jersey sales of Watanabe have become the best-selling jersey in Japan.
Zhang loses UFC title
Unfortunately, the reign of China’s Weili Zhang as the UFC’s strawweight champion is over. On April 24, she lost her title to the United States’ Rose Namajunas, after being knocked out with a head kick in the first round of their five round championship fight.
Zhang was out momentarily but once she regained her senses, she protested the stoppage stating that she did not know what happened.
After a long layoff due to the quarantines imposed across the world, Zhang returned from a year’s absence.
The promotion of the fight with Namajunas, a former champion, was odd as she called out Zhang for being from China. Noting her Lithuanian roots and that her country had been oppressed by communism, she associated Zhang with the leanings of the ideology.
“Better dead than red,” Namajunas told an interviewer for a media outlet in Lithuania. The reference was to ‘red’ China and an anti-communist stance toward the country.
Zhang did not offer a reply to the statement. Rather, she complimented Namajunas as a fighter and hoped that they could be friends after the fight.
Namajunas is entitled to her opinion and there are issues in China that are certainly concerning. But the purpose of Namajunas’ comments and to denounce Zhang was based on a superficial hate for the ideology of Communism. Her comments were not specific about Zhang, the person, but the fact that she was from China. She did not mention if Zhang supported Communism or any-type of issues related to her political affiliation.
For her part, Zhang maintained her composure and did not respond to the prodding. Instead, Zhang focused on trying to gain more fans. At the weigh-ins, one day before the fight, she spoke to the crowd in attendance, saying, “Hey USA, longtime no see!”
UFC 261 was the first event in over a year with a capacity crowd in an arena in Jacksonville, Florida.
The crowd, who booed many of the other non-American athletes, gave Zhang the same treatment. If it was that many were fans of Rose or hated Zhang, the crowd was squarely behind the challenger.
In her official statement after losing her title, she hoped that the UFC would schedule a rematch between the two. She also congratulated Namajunas on the victory.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.