‘Samurai’ unleashes excitement on court

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Nobody was quite sure about the final score, or about who scored how many points, how many assists they had or how many rebounds they grabbed. Because after all, those were probably the least important things the fans cared about.

News photo Yuichiro Morishita dribbles the ball against Grayson “The Professor” Boucher during the AND1 Mix Tape
Tour event at Tokyo Metropolitan Gym on Nov. 16.
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO [See more in our Photo Gallery]

Yet still, there was one thing during last week’s AND1 Mix Tape Tour in Japan that these hoop-crazed folks cared about: interaction with “Samurai.”

To indicate his satisfaction, Yuichiro Morishita, didn’t get on the bus to the hotel quickly, but stayed at the arena to talk with his fans, relatives, friends and staff, all of whom were beaming with bashful smiles.

“Man, it was a lot of fun being around here this time,” said the 29-year-old dubbed Samurai after last Thursday’s game at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.

The AND1 Mix Tape Tour was originated in 1998, when a Queens, N.Y., high school coach named Ron Naclerio recorded the techniques of one of his players, playground legend Rafer Alston, known as “Skip to My Lou” in the streets, in a video tape.

The video was given to executives of basketball apparel newcomer AND1. (Alston now plays for the Houston Rockets.)

The tape, which was distributed at sporting goods chain Foot Locker in the United States, soon became a hot commodity among youngsters, and the team that consists of street-ball phenoms like Alston started touring the U.S in 2000.

The hype of Team AND1, which plays an entertaining blend of hoops, featuring dazzling dribbling, high-flying plays and hip-hop music, has expanded.

The team began playing internationally in 2003, when it first traveled to Europe.

Team AND1 visited Japan in 2004, and this was the third straight year that Team AND1 came to the Far East.

The first game of the two-day tour was held on Tuesday in Kobe, which is close to Samurai’s hometown of Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture. It was the first time that the AND1 Mix Tape Tour was held in the Kansai area.

In Kobe, 3,200 enthusiastic fans embraced Morishita as a hometown hero before the tour moved to Tokyo in front of 5,000 fans on Thursday.

Morishita recalled that he got some vibes during the hometown tour, especially in Kobe.

“It was like, what can I say, more than I expected,” he said. “(The fans) held banners that read my name . . . throughout the arena. I was extremely glad about the whole thing.”

Growing up, Morishita was a decent player but never had a chance to win a tournament title.

After graduating from Osaka High School, Morishita, who was not recruited by a major university or corporate league team, played for a private club.

But Morishita’s basketball career didn’t end there.

He grabbed an opportunity to play at New Hampshire Community Technical College of the NSCAA (National Small College Athletic Association) in the United States in 1998, and became the NSCAA’s assist leader two years in a row (1998-99).

He was named an NSCAA First Team All-American both years, too.

After that, he received an offer from NCAA Division I school Towson University, but the head coach who recruited him was fired. So Morishita never got a chance to play at the school.

Morishita then opted for Plan B: to play in the U.S. as a pro. Since then, he’s played in several leagues including the USBL, ABA and NBDL.

He joined the AND1 team in 2005, when he played for the opposing team of Team AND1 via Open Run (an audition-type game that is held during the Mix Tape Tour) in Tampa, Fla. Then he was chosen for the AND1 team that visited Japan last year.

Samurai continued to play for the team in 2006 as a backup.

On Thursday, he came off the bench with 13:27 left in the first half. And immediately, the fans showered their excitement, showering him with loud, enthusiastic cheers.

For last week’s Japan tour, the AND1 team was divided into two groups — Team 1 and Team 2.

“(The atmosphere) was much better than last year,” said the 169-cm Morishita, who played for Team 2, matching up with famed players like Grayson “The Professor” Boucher and Jamar “The Pharmacist” Davis in the game. “But it’s kind of hard to play with teammates.”

Even so, the legendary street ballers provided exactly what the fans demanded.

Ryan “Special FX” Williams made a spectacular alley-oop reverse dunk and Aaron “A.O.” Owens delivered a lightening no-look pass for their Team 1 side.

For Team 2, Dennis “Spyda” Chism hung on the rim with his signature spider pose after slamming the ball and a chubby-looking “The Pharmacist” took his opposing player’s jersey while dribbling the ball.

Meanwhile, the players who were selected for the Open Run didn’t get any butterflies but performed bravely in the game.

“It was like a dream come true,” said 11-year-old player Toshitaka Kato, who was selected to play along with 22-year-old Canadian Joey “King Handles” Haywood.

“But the next time I play with the AND1 team, I want to play as a regular player, not as an Open Run representative,” Kato added.

Morishita said he plans to spend the rest of his life in the States, but he wants to be a pioneer for younger Japanese ballers.

“I’ve been thinking like that in the past 10 years,” he said. “And as long as it is possible, I want to do interesting, meaningful stuff, so guys after me can excel in the future.

“In myself, there is no impossible. I believe it is more meaningful to chase a dream than to actually achieve it.”