/

Aono yearns to make big impact for Japan

by Kaz Nagatsuka

He sank his body in a tiny chair — tiny for him — bending his back a bit, and gently talked with the reporters, looking at the eyes of each person.

News photoFumihiko Aono, right and fellow big man J.R. Sakuragi take a break during a recent Japan National Team practice at the Yoyogi Gymnasium annex. Japan competes in the FIBA Asia Championship, which starts on Saturday.
KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

Fumihiko Aono is that kind of guy. Despite his massive body, he is humble, calm, and polite to everyone he chats with.

In fact, the 28-year-old Aono is arguably the only player who fits the adjective “massive” in Japan’s hoop scene.

Aono, standing at 210 cm with a 120-kg weight, is one of the Japanese few players who can provide presence in the paint, and will be part of the key elements as the Japanese National Team enters the FIBA Asia Championship, during which it aims to gain a spot in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“He is the biggest guy in Japan, and has got a wide body size as well,” Japan coach Kimikazu Suzuki said of Aono on July 16, when he finalized his 12-man squad for the July 28 to Aug. 5 tournament in Tokushima. “In basketball, size does matter.”

When he talked about the Olympics, Aono, center of the JBL’s Panasonic Trians (formerly known as Kangaroos), raised his voice a bit, if not as much as other national team players.

“The Olympics is special,” Aono said. “When we have it, everybody gets excited.”

Four years ago, Aono played for the national team that tried to make the Athens Olympics in the 2003 Olympic qualifier in Harbin, China. But he injured his lower back and was saddled with a lukewarm performance.

“I only had vexation,” Aono recalled of the tournament, speaking about that disappointment. “So I want to turn that into a good one this time.”

The last four years weren’t easy for Aono, who was never called up for the national team after the Athens Olympic qualifier.

He said he watched last year’s FIBA World Championship in Japan on television, and was motivated to get back on the team again.

“As I saw (the national team players) were playing in front of that many people, I became hopeful to play in an atmosphere like that,” said Aono, who has a super soft shooting touch for a big man.

There is another reason for Aono to be more determined for the Olympic qualifier. Aono, a native of Saijo, Ehime Prefecture, said he wants to show his skills in front of his family and former coaches, who plan to visit Tokushima.

“I want to show how much I’ve grown up to them,” Aono said, adding he wants to take his wife, Yuko, to Beijing, because he’s been leaving her home alone for the last half a year.

So, Aono is calmly excited, putting a Hinomaru jersey on.

Team Japan took a trip from June 27 to July 10 to Lithuania and Germany, where it played mainly with the Under-23 Lithuania National Team, and Aono felt he wasn’t able to really come through.

“It wasn’t very good for me,” Aono said candidly. “I wasn’t really able to relate to scoring plays and rebounds. But at least what things I can do and what things I can’t do became clearer.”

But Suzuki isn’t too worried. He thinks Aono will play a big role for Japan, helping it grab victories in Tokushima, along with newly added J.R. Sakuragi, the ex-UCLA forward who recently gained Japanese citizenship and dropped his former surname (Henderson).

“(Aono) struggled in Europe but came through in the Asian Games (in Doha last December),” Suzuki said. “No one in this country has that kind of body size, and I’m sure he can clearly play (at the international level).”

JAPAN NATIONAL SQUAD (for FIBA Asia Championship in Tokushima, with each player’s jersey number listed first): 4. Takuya Kawamura, SG, OSG; 5. Daiji Yamada, PF, Panasonic; 6. Ryota Sakurai, SG, Rera Kamuy; 7. Kenichi Sako, PG, Aisin; 8. Shinsuke Kashiwagi, Aisin; 9. Takehiko Orimo, SG, Rera Kamuy; 10. Kosuke Takeuchi, PF, Aisin; 11. Tomoo Amino, SF, Aisin; 12. Kei Igarashi, PG, Hitachi; 13. Fumihiko Aono, Panasonic; 14. J.R. Sakuragi, C/F, Aisin; and 15. Joji Takeuchi, PF, Hitachi. Coach: Kimikazu Suzuki.