Even when you possess elite skills, physicality and elaborate Xs and Os, if you don’t have a burning desire to win, you’ll just waste those gifts.
That’s one of the concerns of Japan men’s national basketball team head coach Kenji Hasegawa.
“Physicality, height, the skill to make shots and the skill to make accurate passes . . . to name a few,” Hasegawa said of what his team needs to improve on Saturday at Tokyo’s National Training Center, where the “Akatsuki Five” tuned up for the Sept. 9-18 FIBA Asia Challenge in Tehran. “But if I had to narrow it down to just one, it would be the go-for-broke mindset, like you try to score by any means and something like that. The go-for-broke mentality, that’s something we are lacking.”
The Rio de Janeiro Games recently wrapped up and the national team, which has failed to compete in an Olympics for four decades, doesn’t get all that much attention now. In fact, there were just a handful of reporters and no TV cameras for the day’s practice.
But leading up to the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, events in which Japan will presumably have a tough time booking spots, the team has to keep developing and doesn’t have time to waste.
Japan is shooting for a final-four finish or better in the 12-team Asia Challenge so that East Asian nations can be allocated more spots in the FIBA Asia Cup, which was formerly known as the FIBA Asia Championship, in 2017. Japan is in Group D along with South Korea and Thailand in the preliminary round of the Challenge.
“In order to compete on a par on the world stage, we need to be No. 1 in Asia at least,” shooting guard Makoto Hiejima, one of Japan’s best players, said. “We are going to aim for that and want to eventually prove we can compete with the rest of the world.”
Team Japan still has a bad taste in its mouth from the summer. Japan was quickly eliminated from the Olympic Qualifying Tournament for the Rio Games, losing to Latvia (88-48) and the Czech Republic (87-71) in Serbia in July.
The team then finished seventh, with a 3-5 record, in the William Jones Cup in Taiwan in late July, and was swept in a three-game series by George Washington University, which took a tour to Japan last month.
“We have gaps (with players from elite countries) in terms of our individual abilities, so we will have to develop our individual skills a lot more moving forward,” Hiejima said. “Otherwise, we are not going to raise the bar of our team.”
Hasegawa said: “You can’t beat countries like the United States or the teams that competed in Rio right away. There are steps you have to take and for us, we need to make sure we finish in the top four in Asia first.”
One positive for the national team is the addition of Ira Brown, who just obtained Japanese citizenship late last month.
A Gonzaga University alum and Texas native, Brown, who is known for his phenomenal athleticism, said he’s ecstatic about the opportunity to play for Japan, where he’s spent the last five seasons playing for the bj-league’s Toyama Grouses and the NBL’s Hitachi Sunrockers (now known as the Sunrockers Shibuya in the B. League).
“I know that I can bring some special things to the team, whether it’s rebounding, defense, whatever I need to do to help them become much better than they are, and I’m willing to do that,” Brown, a 34-year-old forward, said.
Hasegawa’s expectation for Brown is obviously high. But it’s not just limited to the player’s basketball skills. The coach is also asking him to provide leadership, which the national team has lacked in recent years.
“My job is to bring our American mentality,” Brown said. “That’s what (Hasegawa) wants me to do, that’s what I do on every team. I’m always getting the guys into the practices whatever, because I know if we have high energy, the practice is going to be good. So I take pride in being the energy guy.
“Younger guys, they can be shy, but I’ve never been a shy guy. I’m charismatic type of guy, high-energy guy. So I want to be able to bring that to them.”
Brown, who represented the United States in the 2012 FIBA 3×3 World Championship in Athens, would love to help his national squad teammates both with his athleticism and character.
“(I’m) a hungry guy on the court. Pushing our players beyond what they are capable of doing is what I look forward to doing,” he said. “Because I’m that type of person, I never give up no matter what circumstances are.”
Working out with Japan’s future: Meanwhile, Brown said he worked out with Japanese native Rui Hachimura, who has joined the Gonzaga University Bulldogs basketball team this year, in the U.S. this summer.
It was the first time the two met in person, but Brown was impressed with how gifted the kid from Toyama Prefecture was as they practiced together.
“In my opinion, he’s going be an extremely special player,” Brown said of Hachimura, a versatile, 203-cm forward. “I mean, he can shoot the 3, he can penetrate, (he’s) very long and athletic. So the sky’s the limit for him. He’s got a pretty good work ethic.”
Brown added that it was also the right choice for Hachimura, who led Sendai’s Meisei High School to the Winter Cup national championship titles for three straight years, to select Gonzaga.
Brown said by playing in the Zags’ program, Hachimura would be forced to become better because he’d learn the game mentally, not just physically.
“He’s going to play against some big, big guys. So they are going to push him to his limits,” Brown said. “He won’t be the best player as he was here in Japan. He’s going to have to force himself to adjust to American style of basketball.”
Brown thinks that Hachimura would eventually be “an NBA draft prospect.”