Basketball / NBA

Japan basketball pioneer Yasutaka Okayama reflects on his past, wishes Rui Hachimura well

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Yasutaka Okayama was the first Japanese to ever be selected in the NBA Draft. But he humbly says that the impact made by Rui Hachimura is incomparably greater than his case.

“I would like to congratulate him,” Okayama said in a phone interview with The Japan Times, minutes after Hachimura was selected by the Washington Wizards with the ninth overall pick of the first round in the NBA Draft in New York on Thursday — Friday morning in Japan.

Okayama was selected by the Golden State Warriors in the eighth round of the 1981 NBA Draft. But he did not even negotiate with the team, partially because he wanted to keep playing for the Japan national team.

So Okayama was overwhelmed that he is even in the conversation with Hachimura, who entered the draft after his junior season at Gonzaga University.

“I was drafted in the eighth round, he’s a first-rounder,” the 64-year-old said. “He’s genuinely the first Japanese.”

Okayama anticipated a day like this — a Japanese player being picked in the first round of the NBA Draft — would eventually come as the game has grown so much globally after the U.S. Dream Team’s success and popularity at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, which led to pros competing in FIBA events.

“Since then, players with NBA experiences have spread out and some of them have come to Japan,” said Okayama, who was a 230-cm center and starred for the national team mainly in the 1970s and ’80s. “So I anticipated we would eventually have a Japanese player (like Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe).”

Meanwhile, Okayama refrained from having excessive expectations for what the 21-year-old Hachimura could possibly achieve in the NBA at this point.

“It’ll be up to how the team will ask him to play, what position he’ll play at, and how much he’ll be able to respond to all that,” Okayama said of the West Coast Conference Player of the Year for the 2018-19 season. “But hopefully, he’ll keep accumulating experience and better results so that his status will rise.

“Well, of course, I want him to win the Rookie of the Year, though.”

Okayama insisted that Hachimura and Watanabe, who debuted as the second Japanese player on a two-way signing with the Memphis Grizzlies last year, both have exceptional ambitions to be better players and that is why both went to universities in the United States. He added that it all paid off for them.

“I believe that type of quality is very important,” Okayama said. “And I have a great interest to see how Hachimura will develop going forward.”

Actually, Okayama regrets his lost opportunity, including taking a potential shot at making the NBA.

Okayama joined the University of Portland basketball team and had a chance to officially be the first Japanese NCAA player. But was diagnosed with a brain tumor due to gigantism and it prevented him from achieving it.

“If I kept being buffeted in the environment, maybe I could’ve taken a different path,” said Okayama, a Kumamoto Prefecture native. “So I regret that a little bit.”

Okayama said that Hachimura will provide a huge impact for all of Japanese basketball, being a centerpiece for the national team that will compete at the FIBA World Cup this summer and at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.