Two decades ago, J.R. Sakuragi — well, J.R. Henderson, as he was known then — achieved the best accomplishment of his basketball career as his UCLA Bruins captured the NCAA championship with a 89-78 victory over Arkansas in the final at Seattle’s Kingdome during his freshman year.
All his teammates from the 1995 title-winning squad have hung up their kicks by now, but Sakuragi is still going strong as a crafty veteran center for the NBL’s Aisin SeaHorses in Japan.
“Last man standing,” Sakuragi, 39, said with a laugh on Friday, one day before the first game of the best-of-five NBL Finals, in which his SeaHorses will look to defend their title against the Toshiba Brave Thunders. “That’s unbelievable because there were a lot of guys that were highly recruited and highly sought-after, big-name guys.”
Charles O’Bannon, who played alongside Sakuragi on the NCAA championship-winning team under Jim Harrick, also played in Japan later in his career.
Sakuragi played with Earl Watson in his senior season. While Watson now stands on the sidelines in a suit as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns in the NBA, 203-cm Sakuragi is still banging his body against the big men of rival teams underneath the basket week in, week out.
Sakuragi, a native of Bakersfield, California, is a proud Bruin and still cherishes the days he wore the blue and gold jersey.
But he appreciates his time and career on the other side of the Pacific Ocean in Japan as well.
Sakuragi was drafted by the Vancouver Grizzlies in the second round of the 1998 NBA Draft. He averaged 3.2 points playing in 30 games for the team in the 1998-99 season. He first joined Aisin back in 2001. He’s had some stints in other countries, but overall has been in Japan for 14 seasons.
“Never, never,” Sakuragi said, when asked if he expected to play in Japan this long. “When I came here, I didn’t even know this league existed, so definitely I didn’t think I would be here (as long as I have).”
Yet Sakuragi has become a really good fit for Japan. He’s helped Aisin win six league titles, while receiving the league MVP award three times.
“When you go to the NBA, you find out it’s really a business,” said Sakuragi, who became a Japanese citizen (becoming “J.R. Sakuragi”) in 2007. “So that’s all I had in my mind. I was trained that way after college. I was just looking for the best business opportunity.
“But here, the overall experience for me is probably the best I’ve had in basketball. I think that’s why I’ve gotten comfortable here. The coaches, and people here and everything. It’s really different. It’s nice and I enjoy it.”
Funny thing is, Sakuragi’s Japanese teammates, especially the younger ones, might not even be aware that he was part of an NCAA championship-winning team at such a highly esteemed college as UCLA.
“I don’t know. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. They have different interests. They are not really into history,” he laughed, when asked if the SeaHorses’ Japanese players knew about his past. “We don’t talk (about it) much. But they know I went to the school. I think if anyone knows, it’s (guard Makoto) Hiejima. I think he’s visited (UCLA) one time or stuff like that.”
Hiejima, 25 now, was 4 years old when the Bruins captured the NCAA title, so he probably doesn’t have any vivid memories of Sakuragi playing in a Bruins jersey, if he had even seen him at all. What the Japanese youngster does know is that Sakuragi has been a very dependable asset for the SeaHorses.
“He may not be as good as he used to be, but he can still make things happen for us, and he’s still playing at the highest level,” Hiejima said of Sakuragi, who averaged 11.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists (third in the league) this season.
Toshiba’s American center Nick Fazekas, who led the University of Nevada to the NCAA Tournament four straight years, certainly knows the value of winning the collegiate title better.
Fazekas, 30, also expressed his admiration for Sakuragi having achieved what he has in Japan all these years.
“It’s definitely amazing what he’s done over here for the JBL, NBL and Japanese basketball as a whole,” said Fazekas, a former NBA player who won the NBL MVP award two seasons ago. “Because he’s been a guy that I think a lot of Japanese guys looked up to just like, ‘I want to be like J. R., I want to be as good as J. R.’ The (SeaHorses) got endless titles, so for me, I look at J. R., ‘Man, I kind of want to do what he’s done and be able to emulate what he’s done.’ ”
Sakuragi has also previously played for the Japan national team.
Asked what drives him to keep running up and down the court after all this time, Sakuragi said it’s the enthusiasm for the game that he has deep down inside.
“I have a passion to win, I have a passion to, just whoever is in my way, destroy them pretty much,” he said.
He’ll turn 40 in October. Yet he might still be a SeaHorse next season, when the B. League, Japan’s new professional circuit, starts.
“Game to game, that’s where my mind is,” Sakuragi said. “I take one game at a time. I try not to think too far ahead. But I like the connection with coach (Kimikazu Suzuki) and everything. I like my teammates. I play for those guys and play for the coach.”