Basketball / B. League

New passport, but same responsibilities for Brave Thunders star Nick Fazekas

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Since his 2012 arrival in Japan, Nick Fazekas has been regarded as one of the very best to compete in Japan pro basketball.

Now, he is one of the very best Japanese players.

Late in April, the Kawasaki Brave Thunders made the stunning announcement that their MVP big man had obtained Japanese citizenship.

The 210-cm center/power forward first considered naturalizing last summer. It was an idea that came from his heart, not the front office.

“My wife and I kind of just thought, ‘Maybe it would be a good idea,’ ” Fazekas told The Japan Times in an interview at the Brave Thunders practice gym on Monday. “Because we enjoy living here.”

From a basketball standpoint, Fazekas thought naturalization would give him a longer career and allow him to continue playing in the nation where he had become established as an elite star.

The two-time league MVP (NBL and B. League) confessed that he had to consider the pros and cons of switching his passport. But in the end, he said, “the pros kind of outweighed the cons.

“At the end of the day, you don’t have anything to lose,” said the 33-year-old, whose Brave Thunders will tip off their 2018-19 season against the host Chiba Jets Funabashi on Thursday night.

So Fazekas consulted Toshiba, then-owner of the Brave Thunders, to see if the company would support his naturalization process.

“(Toshiba) was like, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it, if you want to try,’ ” he said. “That was how it kind of all started.”

Fazekas’ wife and parents back in the United States supported his decision. He then had to embark on the difficult task of proving he was “a good citizen,” one of many requirements to obtain a Japanese passport.

“You have to file all this paperwork,” said Fazekas, who was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 2007. “I think my file was a couple of hundred pages of the stuff I needed in order to just prove who I am.”

The former University of Nevada star smiled when asked if his naturalization had paid off on the court, saying that it was “a little too early” to say as he hasn’t competed in many games as a Japanese citizen yet.

One thing is for certain: It’s paid off for the Japanese men’s national team. Fazekas helped the Akatsuki Five, who have not been guaranteed a spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, successfully qualify through the first round of the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers during the summer after its campaign started 0-4 without him.

The highlight was Japan’s historic June upset of Australia, then ranked No. 10 in the world, in a victory which centered around Fazekas and Gonzaga University phenom Rui Hachimura.

“That’s something Japanese basketball hadn’t really done,” said Fazekas, a native of Arvada, Colorado. “So of course it’s definitely paid off. Beating Australia was so much fun and was such an accomplishment.”

Fazekas will be expected to guide the national squad to another pair of wins in the team’s next two World Cup qualifiers, which will take place in late November and early December in Toyama.

His nationality wasn’t the only thing that changed this year: in mid-July he had surgery to remove a bone chip in his left ankle that had bothered him for nearly 10 years.

Fazekas was late to join the Brave Thunders’ preseason activities after spending much of the summer recovering, but believes he is “heading into the right direction” toward getting back into form.

During his rehabilitation in Arizona, Fazekas had an unexpected encounter with Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate, who was recovering from hip surgery in the spring. The two had not met previously, but Fazekas thought “it was cool that he won the MVP (in 2017) and I won my MVP (in the 2016-17 season).”

The two also chatted about differences between their respective sports, from the hotels they stay in to how their teams hold training camps and the differences between life in Fukuoka and Tokyo.

The Brave Thunders have come up short in their championship quest during in the B. League’s first two campaigns. They finished as runner-ups in the inaugural year and were eliminated by the Jets in the first round of the playoffs last season.

Fazekas has been a pillar of the squad, winning MVP and scoring titles in the first year and a rebounding title in the second. At the same time, sometimes he has had to shoulder too much weight.

That should change this year as the Brave Thunders, who had a 41-19 record last season, have acquired a pair of imports and former NBA players in Vernon Macklin and Shane Edwards.

Thanks to new rules implemented in the offseason, B. League teams will be able to use two import players in all four quarters. With his new Japanese passport, Fazekas will be able to play alongside the Americans and believes their arrival will reduce his responsibilities.

Brave Thunders head coach Takuya Kita expects Fazekas to keep scoring and believes Macklin and Edwards will simplify that task.

“The two imports can score, too,” Kita said, “So if we can decentralize our opponents’ defense, it makes it easier for Nick to score.”

Whether Fazekas plays as an import or as a Japanese, he is determined to continue to be the Brave Thunders’ ace.

“I still want to be the go-to guy here,” he said. “I still want to be the guy who carries the team.

“I still want to be the team leader. Everyone still wants me to be the guy.”