It’s always sad when a great player calls it quits. Especially a guy like Kenichi Sako, who was called “Japan’s Mr. Basketball” over the years.

But Sako, one of the best Japanese basketball players ever, has left the game he loves with the same attitude he had on the floor: smiling.

The Aisin Sea Horses point guard, who announced his retirement on Friday, said he exits with no regrets.

“In the last 18 years in the industrial league, I have always been performing to my limit, aiming at a higher level and never looking back,” the 40-year-old Sako said at a Tokyo news conference on Saturday. “I was supported by so many people and now I can reflect that my days as a player were more than satisfactory.”

Sako, a three-time Japan Basketball League Most Valuable Player, has been battling a series of injuries, including in his knees and Achilles’ tendons. But the crucial moment came in January’s All-Japan Championship tournament (Emperor’s Cup), when he suffered a pulled muscle in his leg in the semifinals against the Hitachi Sunrockers. That time he made up his mind to hang up his shoes at the end of the season.

“While my knees weren’t perfect in the last few years, I was careful about my physical condition. I got injured in that important game and couldn’t be on the court in the final game.” Sako said.

“Afterward, I figured that I wouldn’t be able to keep playing in the next season.”

Sako, a graduate of Hokuriku High School and Chuo University, played in 340 JBL games, averaging 7.1 points and 3.3 assists.

Sako started his JBL career with the Isuzu Motors Giga Cats in the 1993-94 season and moved to Aisin in 2002. The 179-cm standout led his teams to nine JBL and 13 All-Japan Championship titles.

Sako was also a constant core member of the Japan national team since 1991. He helped Team Japan finish second in the 1997 Asian Championship in Riyadh and earn a ticket for the 1998 World Championship in Greece.

Sako’s cheerful attitude was widely recognized by Japanese hoop fans. But there were a couple of occasions that he came to sob on the court, he admitted.

The first one was from joy. Sako said that when he led the Giga Cats to an All-Japan title in ’01, he couldn’t hold back his tears.

“We missed our fifth straight (JBL) title because of my injury,” Sako recalled. “I was named the team captain despite my young age. I was tormented. It was perhaps the toughest time of my career.

“And the following year, we won the Emperor’s Cup and I cried. I had almost never done that.”

The other time was from sorrow. After the Japan national squad successfully made the ’98 World Championship, Sako tried to help the national team earn a berth to the Sydney Olympics.

But Japan failed to grab a ticket to Australia, slipping to fifth in the ’99 Asian Championship in Fukuoka, which was the qualifier for the Sydney Games.

“In myself, it was going to be my last chase for an Olympics, but we ended in fifth,” said Sako, a father of two daughters. “I shed tears that time, too.”

Actually, though it wasn’t on the court, there was a moment that Sako would nearly whimper during the news conference. It was when he heard a surprising message from his old pal Takehiko Orimo, a Hokkaido Basketball Club guard/forward who is at the same age as Sako.

“Although I’ve never been a teammate of Ken, we’ve known each other since we were in high school and played together on the national team too,” Orimo said in a statement. “So when I heard about his retirement, I had mixed feelings.

“Yet considering his body, it’s probably time for him. Now I would like to give him rewarding words.”

Sako said that he has not decided what he would do as his next step, except for taking some time off to relax.

But one thing that’s for sure for him is that he wants to stay involved in basketball, ultimately to help the national team chase its dream: reaching the Olympics.

“I’m done as a player, but I still would like to help Japan make an Olympics,” said the Kanagawa Prefecture native, who emphasized that Japanese players need more experience and mental toughness, particularly on the national team.

“So I would be pleased if I could keep in touch with basketball in some way.”

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