Ochiai hoping to lift Japan’s 1-on-1 profile

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Japan isn’t exactly a place where one expects to find world-renowned streetball players.

While there have been some — notably Yuichiro “Samurai” Morishita who had a stint with the famed And1 stable — Japan’s cupboard has remained mostly bare in terms of global recognition. That’s not because of a lack of players, it’s just that very few have gained any sort of recognition outside Japan.

Tomoya Ochiai is ready to take a stab at filling that void, and showing that Japan can compete among the world’s best. Ochiai, aka Worm, took the first step this past weekend by beating Josei “Money” Maniwa in the Red Bull King of the Rock Japan Final on Sunday in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, to qualify for September’s world final on Taiwan’s Samasana Island.

“I lost to (Hideki) Mitsui-san last year and never forgot about it this past year,” Ochiai said. “I was definitely going to win this time and I think I was the most prepared. I consider this Japan qualifier is just a passing point for me. I’m going to Taiwan to prove that a Japanese player can win in a 1-on-1 competition.”

The Red Bull King of the Rock Tournament is a worldwide 1-on-1 streetball competition. Various tournaments take place around the globe during the year, and the winners gather for a final 64-man showdown to decide a champion.

Mitsui, an aspiring Buddhist priest who also plays alongside Ochiai on the streetball team Underdog, won the right to represent Japan in 2013, but wasn’t able to win a single game in the world final. Ochiai wants to carry the Japanese flag further this time.

“I want to make it to the final eight,” Ochiai said. “I know that there will be an enormous amount of participants, so I’ve got to have a strong mindset.”

Ochiai may have to make a few adjustments to his game before the world finals in order to succeed where Mitsui failed.

“He needs to raise his level, although the time is limited,” Mitsui said. “He will carry everyone’s high expectations. I definitely want him to post one win at least.”

In Japan, Ochiai can usually use his 190-cm, 80-kg frame to his advantage. However he was notably out of his depth against 193-cm, 107-kg battering ram Takashi Yasumuro in the second round on Sunday. Yasumuro continuously slammed his body against Ochiai to great effect, and may have won the matchup had his offensive repertoire consisted of more than backing down to the basket and taking awkward turnaround shots. Ochiai could be in for more of the same against opponents closer to his size in the world finals.

“I’m sure everybody’s bigger than me,” Ochiai said. “Yet I’ll do what I believe in. I’ll be attacking inside.”

He also sounded unfazed by the prospect of facing foreign players in Taiwan.

“Now I’ll be matching up with foreigners (in the world final),” he said. “I match up against foreigners with the Otsuka Corporation Alphas (of Japan’s NBDL), and I played against foreigners in the 3-on-3 world championships (in Russia in April). So I will have to take advantage of my experience from now on.”

Experience is one thing. Putting it to use is an entirely different story, as Mitsui can attest to after falling 14-6 to Zack Bajric, a Serbian based in Abu Dhabi, in last year’s world final.

“It was a complete loss,” Mitsui said. “More than the difference the final score indicated, I couldn’t do anything. I’d never been beaten like that in my basketball life.”

Ochiai, 26, and Mitsui, 31, are friends who often play together. Ochiai knows what happened at last year’s world final and sounded like he would use it as motivation.

“I saw he was so frustrated having lost,” Ochiai said. “I want play better at the world final. I’m headed to get some revenge for him.”

Ochiai likes the 1-on-1 format, and his goal is to show basketball fans that a Japanese player can compete with the world’s best mano-a-mano.

“You don’t get this pressure in other basketball like in a 1-on-1 game,” Ochiai said. “You can’t afford to lose, and that makes it addictive. You get the spotlight and it’s all yours.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.