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Persistence helps Lawrence extend career, connect with heritage

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The Japan Times will be featuring periodic interviews with players in the bj-league — Japan’s first professional basketball circuit — which is in its third season. Aaron Sakai Lawrence of the Saitama Broncos is the subject of this week’s profile.

Position: Guard;
Age: 25
Ht: 183 cm;
Wt: 79 kg
Hometown: Sacramento, Calif.
College: University of Alaska-Anchorage (NCAA Division II)

Q: A year ago at this time, where were you playing basketball?

Lawrence: Yeah, it’s funny. About a year ago I was actually coming back and forth from Sacramento, Calif., to Tokyo trying out for the bj-league. I came about three times last year just to try out for the bj-league.

When did you start doing this?

I think in September or October (2006) they had a preliminary tryout, so I came for about three weeks (to check it out), because I had e-mailed a lot of the coaches and teams and tried to contact them to let them know about my situation and let them know that I was really interested in playing in this league.

I came over here and luckily I have an uncle who lives over here in Meguro, Tokyo, so I stayed with him. I actually went over to the bj-league office to find out when the tryouts would be, so I set my sights on coming back in January and I stayed for another three weeks.

How did you stay in shape for basketball while doing all this traveling?

(In Sacramento), we have a league where a lot of guys that are in their offseason or play overseas or in the NBA, CBA and NBADL called Basketball Town.

A lot of guys come in the morning and do drills and just basically stay in shape and try to get better in the offseason.

(Lawrence returned to Japan last May for a third tryout, which was held days before the league’s draft.)

So how did you wind up with the Broncos?

I didn’t end up being drafted after that, but luckily Coach David Benoit saw my DVD that I had (sent) six months before that and he gave me a call and I ended up here this season.

Did you think you made a good impression on the team and the league at the tryouts?

In January, I thought I played real well and put myself in a good position to catch the interest of some of these teams.

(About 100 players participated in these tryouts) and everyone’s out there doing their own thing trying to catch the interest of the coaches or scouts, so that’s not really my style.

That’s not really where I thrive, like being flashy. So I didn’t do that well in the main tryout, but luckily my DVD impressed Coach Benoit and the Broncos.

What did you include on the DVD?

It was just some of my best games and some of my highlights from college.

Did you take pride in Japanese culture growing up in the United States as a child of mixed heritage, being one-half Japanese-American and one-half African American? And did that trigger your interest in playing pro ball here?

Yes, definitely. You know, it’s kind of funny when I tell people I’m half Japanese, when I tell people in Japan that, they assume that I speak Japanese, that my mother was born in Japan and my father is American.

My dad is African-American and my mother is JapaneseAmerican. They were both born in the States. I was born in the States.

Before I came I knew very little Japanese outside of the numbers and how to ask for the bathroom and the bank and extra noodles (laughs).

After college, I wanted to keep playing for as long as I could. I knew some guys playing over here and I knew the level of play and I thought that I could definitely be a help to some team. But I had a special interest because of my heritage.

How would you rate your play as a rookie pro thus far?

As far as the Broncos, we just talk about getting better and taking it game by game. Obviously in the two previous seasons, the Broncos hadn’t fared so well and this season was very important for us.

It’s Coach Benoit’s first year and my first year, and we’re just trying to come in and help build a winning attitude. I’m grateful to Coach Benoit for letting me play through some of my mistakes. . . . But he’s the type of coach who lets me play through it and lets me grow . . . and I’m just trying to set my sights on the team getting better.

Who are a few players you go up against in practice or various guards around the league that give you the toughest competition?

In this league the quality of play is real good, for foreigners and Japanese.

One of the toughest players, I think, is (Matt) Lottich on Osaka. He can shoot the lights out and he’s smart and he really controls his team. He plays the whole game. He’s always coming at you, so he’s definitely been a hard assignment. And he’s very efficient at what he does. He’s probably the most efficient guard in the league.

What are your thoughts on playing against 89ers All-Star Hikaru Kusaka?

He does a good job knowing his capability and not playing outside himself. He’s very efficient in getting his team in the offense and making sure the guys get the ball and touch the ball. Yeah, he’s a good player.

Do you have a favorite pass you like to make?

Yeah, coming down the lane and you see JD (James Davis) or G (Gordon James), both those guys have good hands. So coming down there you give them the ball when there’s a pick-and-roll or just dishing it to them and you know they are going to finish. That’s definitely a safety net for our guards, including myself.

Who were some guys you considered role models or players you tried to emulate while growing up?

Kevin Johnson. He was from Sacramento and one of the biggest names to come out of Sacramento. I always liked to watch the point guard because I was always the littlest guy on the court. Guys like Tim Hardaway, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, especially guys like Jason Kidd, I just liked how they could control the game without having to score or shoot the ball. Guys that were selfless players and could basically dominate a game from the point guard position.

Do you think Japanese-American players are following your career and thinking the bj-league is a possible option for them in the future?

Well, I definitely think . . . in the Japanese-American community a lot of people know each other, so if you are a star athlete people know about you. So I definitely think there’s a lot of young, good talent in Sacramento, the Bay Area and L.A., and they are going to look at coming over here and extending their career because there’s a lot of talent back home.