Basketball star Tokashiki ready to test ability at world championship

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

At the age of 23, Ramu Tokashiki is already a big presence in Japan’s women’s basketball scene. But she is also thirsty for tougher competition, which she can’t really get at home.

So the 192-cm post player is as excited as any other Japanese player as the national team gears up for the FIBA World Championship for Women in Turkey, which tips off on Sept. 27.

“It will be my world debut,” Tokashiki said during a recent training camp for the national squad at Tokyo’s National Training Center. “I’m very much looking forward to it and that’s my motivation right now.”

Though the world championship will be her first participation in a global tourney, Tokashiki already made a name for herself outside of Japan last year. She guided the “Hayabusa Japan” squad to its first title in 43 years in last fall’s FIBA Asia Championship for Women in Thailand. Tokashiki led the tournament with 17.1 points per game and was named MVP.

That experience of competing against bigger foreign players perhaps ignited Tokashiki’s fighting spirit. The JX Sunflowers, her WJBL club, won the All-Japan Championship in January, but she didn’t look altogether happy about it.

“Somewhere in my mind, I wasn’t fully excited,” she said at the time. Tokashiki is clearly on a different level from other players in the WJBL with her height, speed and skills.

At the world championship, Tokashiki expects rival players to challenge her, acknowledging her ability.

“Because of the MVP in the Asia Championship that I won, I know I will get matched up tightly,” said Tokashiki, who missed Japan’s unsuccessful final world qualifier for the 2012 London Olympics due to an injury.

But she has no intention of backing down.

“I’m going to try to score from anywhere, both inside and outside,” said Tokashiki, who earned the MVP in her first WJBL season in 2010-11. “When I have the ball, I want to aggressively attack. I want to play, telling myself that I can beat anyone one-on-one.”

Yet at the same time, the graduate of powerhouse Oka Gakuen High School doesn’t mean to be too cocky. She understands that replicating the success she had at the Asia Championship last fall at worlds will be difficult.

Nevertheless, the world championship could be a significant event in her career, because professional ballclubs around the globe will be watching.

Tokashiki believes she has a long way to go before she can compete against the world’s best as an equal, and says she won’t play just to attract an offer from a foreign club.

Herb Brown, however, thinks that Tokashiki has the bona-fide skills to play overseas. The 78-year-old Brown, who served as an advisor coach for the Japan women’s national team last year, said that Tokashiki made remarkable progress while he was with the squad.

Brown, who worked in the NBA for decades, said that Tokashiki was already phenomenally athletic and talented when he first got involved with the national team, but not so physical or willing to make contact.

But, under the guidance of Brown, the Detroit Pistons head coach from 1976 to 1978, Tokashiki got to learn about the physical aspect of the game by competing against stronger foreign players in the national team’s training camps and trips overseas last year.

“When the national team trained with and played the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury in Arizona, Brittney Griner and the other players really were able to push her around at first,” Brown said via email. “They gave her no slack and Taku (Tokashiki’s nickname) deferred to them all of the time.

“If she fouled someone, she always apologized and picked them up, which I thought was wrong, especially since they never helped her when they fouled, bumped or knocked her to the floor. It took some time for me to explain that when they fouled you hard and got physical with you, it was a sign of respect and she had to realize that and fight with fire.”

But Tokashiki eventually changed her attitude, according to Brown. The player began to fight back as the team moved to Europe to play against Slovakia and Lithuania, and in a pair of exhibitions against Mozambique in Tokyo afterward.

Without that experience, her MVP-winning success, which directly contributed to Japan’s success, might not have come at the Asia Championship later in the same year.

Brown said he had “no doubt” that Tokashiki should seek an opportunity to play overseas.

“I honestly feel she is good enough to play in the WNBA,” Brown said. “It wouldn’t be easy, but with effort and the correct attitude, she would improve vastly in that type of environment.”

Guards Yuko Oga and Mikiko Hagiwara are the two Japanese who have played in the WNBA.