The Japan Times has featured periodic interviews with players in the bj-league since 2006 in this long-running series. Gary Hamilton of the Gunma Crane Thunders is the subject of this week’s profile. Because the league’s final game was held on Sunday, this article wraps up the series in its current format.
Position: Power forward
Ht: 208 cm
Wt: 130 kg
Hometown: Los Angeles
College: University of Miami (Florida)
Noteworthy: Hamilton is one of the elite rebounders in bj-league history. He won rebounding titles in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons while playing for the Shiga Lakestars, averaging 14.3 and 15.2 rebounds a game, respectively. In the 2011-12 campaign, Hamilton was No. 2 in boards (11.4 a game) while suiting up for the Rizing Fukuoka. For the 2014-15 season, his rebounding average (9.7) was No. 9 overall. He’s also finished in the top 10 in the league in assists and steals on multiple occasions, telling stats that underline his versatility and all-around skills. . . . This season, Hamilton, one of the most gifted passing forwards in the league’s 11-season history, joined Gunma in February and appeared in 22 games. He averaged 8.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. The Crane Thunders finished ninth in the 12-team Eastern Conference, falling short of earning one of the conference’s eight coveted playoff spots. . . . He’s also played pro ball in Poland, Germany, Uruguay and Slovakia.
Hamilton has three younger brothers who have also played NCAA Division I college basketball. Jordan, a 25-year-old guard/forward, went to the University of Texas (2009-11) and has played in the NBA for the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans, as well as in the NBA Development League, Russia and Venezuela. Guard Isaac, 22, has been enrolled at UCLA since 2013. The youngest, 20-year-old Daniel, an athletic swingman who starred for the University of Connecticut for two seasons, then declared for the 2016 NBA Draft in April.
You played a little less than half the 52-game season for the Gunma Crane Thunders, making your season debut on Feb. 6. Would you say you had a solid season in the 22 games you played for Gunma?
I feel like I could’ve played a little bit better, but with the rule changes (due to the reduction in imports this season to two per team on the court from three), and coach (Hirokazu Nema) was trying to divide minutes, it was a little difficult to get a (solid) rotation.
From your perspective, what were the biggest changes that have taken place in the bj-league since you made your debut here with the Shiga Lakestars in 2009?
The biggest change I would say is the import rule, from five (per team) to now three imports, who just want to be competitive and want to compete. Not only are you competing in practice, but you are competing in the gym and trying to get that rhythm is a little bit difficult. I know everybody wants to play a certain amount of minutes, so you can clash or it can turn out to be a good thing. . . . But the teams that win and have a winning record, they have managed it and figured it out. I think that’s the biggest (change).
The problem on our team was there was just a lot of disagreement . . . because everybody wanted to play. . . . I just watched everything unfold, and it unfolded in a bad way I would say, in not making the playoffs. So it really didn’t work out for the better.
The Crane Thunders just missed out on the eighth and final playoff spot for the Eastern Conference. If the team had another two to three weeks in the regular season, do you believe Gunma would’ve squeezed into the playoffs and overtaken the Aomori Wat’s for the final spot? And how disappointing was it for you that the team missed out on the playoffs?
It was too inconsistent. … And once we shot past a couple teams, we got a little too comfortable.
I couldn’t help as I wanted to and what happened happened.
Are you interested in returning to Gunma for the 2016-17 season? Is that something you’ve discussed with the team?
No, I haven’t. I haven’t talked to anybody about returning or anything like that. I’m not sure if it would be a possibility if I would go back to that team. I’m not sure what direction they want to go in.
I was in South America (Uruguay) previously and our season ended early, and so I just came down from the word of Wara (Gunma guard Takamichi Fujiwara) and coach (Hirokazu Nema, former Shiga assistant). It was friendship-based, and they figured I could come in and help them out, and I came in and did what I did. It just fell short.
With the bj-league becoming a part of the new B. League (including the NBL and NBDL) under the restructured Japan Basketball Association, the sport’s governing body here, it will cease to exist as a separate entity. That said, in the bj-league’s 11 years there have been a handful of rebounders for many years at the top of the list, including yourself, Chris Holm, Wendell White and Reggie Warren, among others. Beside rebounding excellence, what do you think your legacy is as a bj-league player?
I think my legacy has been what my dad would describe myself as I would be like a “go-through player,” not so much a go-to player. I play a lot of team basketball. I think three out of the five years that I played in this league I led my team in assists and rebounding, which is really unusual for a guy at my position.
Definitely rebounding, but aside from that just a playmaker and getting my teammates involved in the game, because I felt like I could get my teammates going and then I could get going a little bit better. I know coming to Gunma after my arrival I was able to help Thomas Kennedy’s points per game (24.6 final scoring average, No. 3 in the league) go up a little bit. He was able to thank me for that success, and that made me feel good as a teammate, knowing that you’ve come in and just helped somebody.
Any additional thoughts on your legacy?
A playmaker, team player-type of guy. And I pride myself on that, distributing the ball and helping guys get better looks. … A go-through player, not a go-to player.
Who are five or so of the toughest players you’ve competed against at both ends of the floor during your years in the bj-league? Who’s been the hardest guy(s) to score on? To defend?
(Hamamatsu’s) Reggie Warren’s a good competitor. He competes. He’s real chatty. He’s a fun guy to play against.
(Sendai’s) Wendell White, definitely, is smart, he can set up anything. He got the MVP honors for a reason.
I would say just going back that (facing retired Ryukyu legend) Jeff Newton was a tough task. He would quietly give you that 25 points, not knowing where it came from. But he was just knocking down every opportunity; he wasn’t missing any open shots for sure.
Playing with and against (Toyama’s) Masashi Joho, he’s just a tough, scrappy, athletic scorer. He can compete on the defensive end also. … To play against him, he’s always going to give you the dagger; when you think you are going to win this game, he’ll definitely knock you out.
(Former Shiga teammate) Mikey Marshall was a “silent assassin,” with big baskets at key moments.
(Retired Osaka Evessa legend) Lynn Washington was just a competitor that was strong, had a strong will. Just strong is how I would describe that guy. He was just like a general. He led his team to a lot of success and you’ve got to tip your hat off to him for what he’s done on the basketball court, for sure, you can’t take that away from him.
In your own words, what descriptive words do you think best sum up how you play on the court?
Definitely, a hard-hat, blue-collar player. Tough and in some sense just a leader, vocal.
Think back to growing up, at what age do you have idea or dream to pursue career as a pro player? What gave you the self confidence that this would happen?
Well, growing up I was dreaming to be a professional something, and it started out playing American football, actually, and I didn’t make the transition over to playing basketball even until I was 16. (Before that), I didn’t play organized basketball at all, I was playing it in the streets in Los Angeles. I was just playing for fun and I always had a hoop in my backyard.
That transition going from 6-4 (193 cm) to 6-8 (203 cm) in one summer between my freshman and sophomore year in high school just gave me the confidence to want to go out and pursue basketball in general, and then just the raw skill set that I had in the three years in high school, going up against a lot of major schools going into college gave me the confidence to know … that I could go to the next level, whichever it was knowing that it was basketball outside of the NBA, and playing abroad was definitely going to be my next move after the University of Miami.
Just being 6-8 gave that confidence alone. There’s a lot of guys that say, “If I had that height, if I had that height,” and if they were over 6-5 what they would do with it from the athletics point of view. I didn’t want to disappoint those guys that were dreaming to be my height, so I had to do something and that confidence came from just height alone actually.
During your four seasons at Miami you appeared in 119 games and made 37 starts. Did you develop a stronger all-around basketball IQ by having that chance to come off the bench and watch the game a bit more than if you were starting all of those games?
I think coming off the bench did help me a great deal. Competing well in practice and playing well against starters lets you know that you do belong out there so when you get your opportunities, you have to make the best of it.
When I was sitting there and watching the games unfold, what I can do was just help us in any kind of way. It was definitely a plus that I was able to pick my spots about how I maneuver around the court, and just know that I can get in the game coming off the bench … and if a guy (on the other team) was a little bit winded while I’m fresh, that is an advantage.
We practice all week, so you know what your teammates are going to do. You know what your teammates are capable of, so just being able to get that feel of the opponent was an advantage in my eyes.
What was your biggest thrill or most memorable performance/game as a college player? What made it special?
I remember being on the court versus UConn my sophomore year, in 2003. We were playing the University of Connecticut at home, and we were down two (points). … I was guarding the inbounds, and I was able to get a deflection and have the opponent fumble the ball in the corner, and our best shooter was guarding the corner, and Darius Rice was able to retrieve the ball and hit a 3-point shot at the buzzer to win the game playing against a top team in the country like that.
It was amazing. It was unbelievable. … I was just glad to be a part of it.
(Reporter’s note: UConn reached the Sweet 16 at the NCAA Tournament that year, then won the title in 2004.)
You don’t hear a lot about deflections, isn’t that true?
Yeah, that’s not even a statistic. It probably should be, you know?
How did your father, Gregory, make a positive impact on your life? How did he influence you and help you in your growth and maturation as a student and young man?
My father, just being around when I was growing up in South Central Los Angeles. Just to even have a father was huge looking back at it as an adult now. I didn’t really pay attention much when I was younger, but a lot of guys that I grew up with didn’t have their fathers present or in their lives at all. So just the fact that my father was able to be a father to me and a mentor to a lot of my friends was just a blessing in itself.
Outside of sports, just life advice and everything like that was huge for me and just a huge impact for my father to be there for me, all four of my brothers and my sister, just giving you life gems and everything like that, was huge for me.
As far as athletically, he didn’t really like football at all. He was a big baseball and basketball fan and he grew up playing (both). He really, really wanted me to play basketball, because I went to the same high school as him, so for three years I went to Crenshaw High School, that’s the high school that he went to. His coach, Willie West (a Los Angles High School Sports Hall of Fame inductee), was still there coaching the basketball team, so I was trying to do everything I can. Coach was still in contact with my father just from a friendship standpoint…
With my dad just being focal and sharing his opinion on how I should try out for the team, and like I said, growing those 4 inches over that summer definitely made me want to give it a shot because I was just tired of getting hit in my legs playing football. … So I just gave it a shot, and if it wasn’t for him I probably wouldn’t ever think I was good enough to play basketball because that was our primary sport at the high school. They were pretty good; they had a pretty good team.
The tryout was at Crenshaw, over 300 students tried out. It was ridiculous. Only about 15, 16 guys made the varsity (team). Actually, when I made the team, I didn’t expect to make varsity at all. I was thinking I had zero chance. I was going to be like a JV-type player, and so after practice in the first month I had got moved up to varsity before the season even started and they brought a junior down to JV and moved me up to varsity.
I didn’t get much time but it was a heck of an experience for me, and that was another confidence booster that just helped me want to play the game more and want to be better.
After three years at Crenshaw, when you transferred to rival Susan Miller Dorsey High School as a senior, was it a difficult move?
Going into my senior year, there was a real competitive team at Crenshaw. (Dorsey) was a rival school. There was a lot of controversy with that because there were also rival gangs, too. That transition going there and having to deal with off-court issues. …
Not being a gangster or anything, but just being associated with that school, they just suspect anything like that just because of the gang culture.
So I had a rough time making a transition and it was actually a tough time making a decision. It was something that I had to pray about with my family, just prayed that I could go there and be safe, most importantly, and not worry about basketball, because that was going to take care of itself. But everything actually ended up working out. A couple of guys that I went to junior high with, so they were able to help me out and vouch for me.
In high school, college, and at the pro level overseas in the various places you’ve played, who are some of the better-known guys you’ve competed against on opposing teams?
(Reporter’s note: As a freshman, Hamilton had a season-high 12 rebounds, against Providence College, while battling inside against the Friars’ Ryan Gomes, a future NBA player. He recalled that encounter during our phone interview.)
To be able to get (12 rebounds) against a guy that was eventually an NBA player, that was another confidence booster for me. Gomes was a little-bit undersized guy that made it to the next level and had a solid career in the NBA (2005-12, Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers; 2013-14, Oklahoma City Thunder). So that was real big for me, and that was a real memorable game for myself.
I would say at university one of the better guys at my position was Mike Sweetney (Georgetown), he was a pretty good guy. He ran the floor like a deer and probably weighed 280 (127 kg). Just real strong and could do so much with that size. He was so versatile at that size. It was just ridiculous.
In those UConn battles, playing against Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, those guys were always a powerhouse over at UConn.
Transferring over to the ACC (when Miami left the Big East for the 2004-05 academic year), I think about playing at Cameron Indoor and playing (Duke standouts) J.J. Reddick, Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph.
At Wake Forest, probably one of the biggest competitors I’ve ever played against and ever seen a guy that wanted to win more was Chris Paul. He was just a vocal leader and sportsman, who would do anything to get the job done. And just looking back at that time and watching a young guy as a freshman lead seniors and juniors, upperclassmen, the way he talked to them was like a point guard should talk to them. He’d get your attention. Maybe you wouldn’t like what he said and you were going to talk to him later, but those words that he was using were choice words — and he got your attention, for sure.
In the pros, playing over in Germany, I played with a guy named Brandon Jenkins from the University of Louisville. He was telling me stories about playing for Rick Pitino. He’s an athletic point guard and he’s still playing, he’s playing over in (Slovakia) right now. He’s a great competitive guy.
What were the many backyard basketball games like for the Hamilton boys? Were they super competitive, spirited battles? Did you mostly play in the backyard or in local parks and gyms as well?
We did a little bit of both. We had a lot of two-on-two battles. … I would never ever not let them play if they were able to compete. I would let them get on the floor just to get a sweat in the backyard, just to have fun competing and turning it into a fight nightly, so we all had that drive and that competitive edge, which started playing backyard basketball for sure.
It would be me and the youngest versus the two that were in the middle, so they wouldn’t take it easy on the youngest one.
Have you heard of other families that have had four siblings, brothers and sisters, play D-I basketball?
Crazy story, a guy I played high school with … Onye Ibekwe, he was my age and we played over on the same team at Crenshaw, and he had a younger brother Ekene Ibekwe that went to the University of Maryland, and he had a younger sister (Chinyere) who went to UCLA, and their youngest sister (Ify) to University of Arizona. That is exciting to see that success through our families.
Are you proud setting the bar for your brothers in basketball, being a role model for them?
Most definitely .. but at the same time being that pioneer for them, setting that bar so high, is also a great thing, too. Just being the first one, like the guy putting together the blueprint, so I’m definitely proud to start a little basketball team .. and hopefully those guys will be as successful as possible.