Basketball

Sunflowers captain Asami Yoshida bids farewell to the game

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Asami Yoshida, one of the greatest players in Japanese women’s basketball history, announced her retirement on Monday, saying that she can no longer motivate herself even with the Tokyo Olympics drawing near.

The JX-Eneos Sunflowers, Yoshida’s home throughout her Women’s Japan Basketball League career, had already announced her decision last Friday. But on Monday she made it official, saying she would move forward to the next chapter of her life.

The 31-year-old made it clear that her exit was not only from the Sunflowers, but from the national team as well.

While many of Japan’s elite athletes are motivated by the chance to compete in next year’s Summer Games on home soil, Yoshida told a Tokyo news conference that she had struggled to raise her motivation following the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Japan’s women advanced to the quarterfinal round in Brazil, which they hope laid the foundation to do even better in Tokyo, where the team aspires to win a medal.

“The Rio Olympics was one of the big goals for me personally, and as we accomplished something to a certain degree, I haven’t been as motivated as I should,” Yoshida said. “The national team is a place where you have to be determined. It’s not where you can be half-hearted.”

Yoshida said retirement began crossing her mind during the 2017-18 season. After waiting to see how she felt after the season ended, she entered the 2018-19 campaign thinking it would her last dance.

In fact, the 166-cm point guard changed her jersey number from her longtime “0” back to “12,” a number she had worn earlier in her career.

“I wanted to wait until the finals were over to make sure I really wanted to do it,” said Yoshida, who was the 2011-12 WJBL MVP and a five-time playoff MVP in her 13-year career. “When the buzzer rang in the end, I did feel I should retire.”

Yoshida contributed to 12 league titles for the Sunflowers, who completed an unprecedented 11th straight championship with a series sweep of the Mitsubishi Electric Koalas earlier this month. She also helped the team win 10 Empress’ Cups at the annual All-Japan Championship tournament.

The Tokyo Seitoku University High School alum was part of the national team that completed a three-peat at the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup between 2013 and 2017.

Yoshida doesn’t yet have a plan for her post-playing career. All that’s certain is she wants to remain associated with basketball, the sport she’s cherished for a long time.

“I would like to grow basketball into a more major sport, which I feel like I could not fully do as a player,” said Yoshida, who did not discount the possibility of a future coaching role.

Kiyomi Sato, who has coached the Sunflowers since the 2012-13 season, praised Yoshida as a having already been a complete player upon his arrival.

“Since she became our team captain, she has always put it together,” Sato said of Yoshida, who averaged 6.2 points and 5.8 assists during her career. “She always gave 120 percent even in practice, not just in games. That’s (the mentality) she brought to the Sunflowers.”

Tomohide Utsumi, who spent plenty of time with Yoshida as head coach for the Sunflowers and national team, praised her dedication to both squads, while admitting the announcement, less than 500 days before the Tokyo Olympics, had thrown him off guard.

“But it is her decision to make,” said Utsumi, who currently serves as head coach for the B. League’s Levanga Hokkaido, on Saturday. “Once she reaches that decision, I respect it. I think she decided to retire because she felt she’s done everything she could possibly do.”

Asked what position she would play if she were given a fresh start in basketball, Yoshida replied that she would stick to the backcourt and compete as a point guard again.

“I’ve played at this position since I was a child and I know how fun and how difficult it is,” the Tokyo native said. “I’d say it’s the most fun and the most difficult position to play. It gives you a sense of satisfaction.

“You can play freely, but you also have to be responsible for game-making. You have to give your teammates instructions from various different angles. You have the responsibility to give your teammates messages from your head coach.”

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