Hoop hero Okayama reflects on lost chance


Staff Writer

Long before recent international Japanese basketball stars like Yuta Tabuse, Yuki Togashi and Yuta Watanabe, there was Yasutaka Okayama, who might have made a name for himself the same way they did.

Okayama, who stands 230 cm — which allegedly makes him the tallest Japanese person — was drafted by the Golden State Warriors in the eighth round of the 1981 NBA Draft. That was the first and only time a Japanese player has been selected.

Okayama didn’t take his shot at joining the premier hoop league, however. He decided to stay in Japan.

“It totally came out of the blue,” Okayama, now 60 years old, said of the moment he was told about the draft selection, in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “A writer at a sports paper called and told me that I was drafted. That’s how I found out.”

Asked how the Warriors scouted him, Okayama just wondered. He didn’t have a clear answer, except that maybe the late Pete Newell, a legendary coach who had worked for the Japan national team as an advisor and served as a talent consultant for Golden State, may have had a hand in it.

“I’m sure that Pete Newell mediated,” Okayama said. “Since the (1964) Tokyo Olympics, he’s watched the Japanese national team and I think that he probably said, ‘There’s this big guy, so let’s bring him over here.’ “

You might wonder why Okayama, who would have been one of the tallest players in league history, didn’t test himself in the NBA at the time, especially if you are not old enough to know the media and broadcast situation back then.

Living in Japan, the NBA was alien in those days. Basketball people knew of the league, but with no game telecasts, no Internet and no smartphones whatsoever, they didn’t know the style or the level of the players.

Okayama, a native of Tamana, Kumamoto Prefecture, was no different. He knew the likes of Kareem, Wilt and Bird by their names, but had no knowledge of how they played. He said that his industrial league team, Sumitomo Metal Industries, Ltd., told him not to negotiate with the Warriors.

“That was because we didn’t know anything about how things were structured in the NBA,” Okayama said. “For example, they didn’t have farm teams and not everybody that’s called up ends up signing with teams. And if I had gone, I would no longer play for Sumitomo Metal and the Japan national team. That was what was on their minds.”

Okayama, who left Sumitomo Metal and was hired by floor plate-making company Sekine Yukayou Kohan Co., Ltd., in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, five years ago (he now serves as a managing director for the company), doesn’t think he made a terrible decision. He knew he wouldn’t have made the final cut for the roster.

But in the back of his mind, Okayama still wanted to go.

“I mean, I was selected and could have gone to the States for free,” Okayama said with a laugh. “Yes, I wanted to go. I thought that way, of course. (But) we ended up having no negotiations whatsoever. Only the fact (that I was drafted) was left on the record. That’s what it was.”

Had the circumstances been what they are today, where you have a large amount of media information and can easily access live NBA telecasts, his decision might have been different, he said. He thinks that the Sumitomo Metal club would have encouraged him, too.

“I probably wouldn’t remain (on the final roster) anyway. Only a few players do. But (the company) would tell me to go,” said Okayama, who’s been a little too busy with his company work to watch NBA games, including the Warriors, in recent years. “And I would definitely say yes, because you don’t get that opportunity very often. And to get an experience like that, it helps you relay that experience to the younger generations.”

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Okayama does have significant experience, however, even without a tenure in the NBA. He switched his sport from judo to basketball at Osaka University of Commerce, and took a leave of absence from the Japanese school to join the University of Portland (Oregon) men’s basketball team when he was a junior in July 1975.

He says that he was originally going to be there for a year, but Jack Avina, the team’s bench boss then, asked him to stay for another year (Okayama was about 208 cm then).

“He said that he would put me on the top team,” recalled Okayama, who did stay for another year with the Pilots.

So, several years before the Warriors drafted him, Okayama had a chance to become the first Japanese to ever play at an NCAA Division I school.

But that didn’t happen, either.

Okayama was told after a medical checkup by the Pilots that he had gigantism, which is caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland of the brain.

“I had never heard of such a term, gigantism,” said Okayama, who was later cured of the condition with treatment in Japan. “And their doctor said, ‘Okayama is still growing (because of it), so don’t let him practice hard, otherwise his heart could blow.’ So in the second year, I wasn’t allowed to practice much or play in a game, and then just returned to Japan.”

Nevertheless, Okayama considers his time in the U.S. an exceptionally valuable and eye-opening opportunity for both his life and basketball career.

The training and sports medicine he witnessed — taping ankles, icing, weight training — was all new to him.

“We didn’t even have an athletic trainer (in Japan), it was a time like that,” he said. “But in the States, they had trainers and were doing weight training. They had a system for first aid when you get hurt.”

Okayama also thinks that the discovery of his gigantism in America may have saved his life. If he had kept practicing judo, for which he said he was offered scholarships from some 30 Japanese universities, it would have been more unlikely than not that he’d have become aware of his condition.

Okayama said that he would weigh in at about 120 to 130 kg at Portland, but would have ended up at more than 200 kg if he stayed on the tatami.

“If I had kept practicing judo, my weight would have kept increasing,” he said. “I wouldn’t have found my gigantism and maybe I wouldn’t have lived.”

Okayama later went back to the U.S., to stay for a year at Western Michigan University for a coaching study a few years after his retirement as a player in 1990.

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After he came back from Portland, Okayama joined the Sumitomo Metal Sparks in 1979 and became an integral part of the team. He guided the team to a Japan Basketball League championship in the 1982-83 season and was selected as the league MVP in the same year. The two-time JBL scoring champion also contributed to the Japan national team for eight years beginning in ’79.

Another chip that remains on Okayama’s shoulder is that he wasn’t able to play on the global stage at the Olympics.

At the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Japan’s men originally had a legitimate shot, but wound up not being able to compete as the nation boycotted the event (Japan wouldn’t have made it anyway, as it finished as runnerup behind China in the Asian Championship, which served as the Olympic qualifier).

“My junior (in judo at Kyushu Gakuin High School in Kumamoto), Yasuhiro Yamashita, wasn’t able to go, either,” said Okayama, a second-grade judo black belt holder who insisted that the experience of judo greatly helped him as a center as he had no problems banging his body against other players.

“Yamashita won (the gold medal) in Los Angeles (in 1984), though. But everybody worked hard and played all out in qualifying, too, and it was such a disappointment that time.”

And Okayama still cares about the men’s national squad, which hasn’t clinched an Olympic berth since the 1976 Montreal Games. He thinks that a deficiency of bigs underneath the basket — like himself — has been one of the main reasons.

“There aren’t genuine Japanese centers,” said Okayama, who has occasionally been involved in basketball through teaching the sport to children around the nation in the last two decades or so. “But other countries in Asia have them, and it creates a gap between them and us.”

The last time Japan triumphed in the Asian Championship, which is held every other year, was at the 1971 edition.

Okayama added that Japanese school teams are responsible for the predicament of producing better centers as many of the high school and collegiate teams rely on imports for that position.

“That’s weird that they let that happen,” Okayama said, raising the tone of his voice. “That is why we don’t have the environment to develop centers here. Japan does need centers, but it doesn’t have the environment.”