Basketball / NBA

Wizards look to capitalize on Rui Hachimura's wave of popularity

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Washington Wizards part owner Raul Fernandez described the team’s top rookie Rui Hachimura as “an incredible human being, incredible athlete and great ambassador” for the club and the NBA on Tuesday.

Fernandez is among a group of Wizards executives, including club President and Chief Commercial Officer Jim Van Stone, currently on its second visit to Japan in the last two months.

Van Stone said the group had scheduled meetings with 27 different companies and media outlets, mostly in Tokyo.

What brought them to Japan twice in that short span is obviously Hachimura, the ninth overall pick in June’s NBA Draft and the first Japanese player to be chosen in the first round.

“We got to fully appreciate the passion and following that he has and the fact that you can only be the first one to break a barrier once, and he’s done that,” Fernandez told The Japan Times. “He’s now a top pick in the NBA draft and, in the first few games, has (done) terrific. And he’s an incredible human being, incredible athlete, a great ambassador for the Washington Wizards and for the NBA, and a great ambassador for Japan.”

Asked if the 203-cm forward has lived up to the team’s expectations, Fernandez responded that it is “clear” Hachimura is “a hard-working competitor,” adding that Hachimura has handled the often-daunting transition from college to professional ball “on the court and off the court in an incredibly beautiful way.”

Van Stone described the trip not only as a business opportunity for the group, but also as “an educational opportunity” to fully understand the Japanese basketball market so the team “can amplify our connectability with the variety of different programs” in Japan.

“Certainly, we have some basketball-related meetings, which is really good for us,” Van Stone said. “Because one of the things we think Rui is going to do is really take youth basketball to the next level in Japan and really get a lot of younger potential athletes connected to the sport. And we think we have a great responsibility for that.”

The executives will also meet with potential sponsors. Before the 2019-20 season kicked off last month, the Wizards announced their first international partnership with Japan’s NEC Corp. The NBA has allowed teams to sell global marketing rights to two international partners this year.

Van Stone said that Hachimura, who has already garnered multiple sponsorships from Japanese companies such as SoftBank and Nissin Foods, has the charisma and personality needed to make himself marketable.

“But I think,” he continued, “that part of that is his skillset on the court and that will help elevate it. I think he’s got an incredible runway ahead of him.”

Van Stone noted that there are brands based in the United States and Japan that “want to get behind” Hachimura, who through Sunday was averaging 13.1 points and 5.5 rebounds, for both endorsement and sponsorship purposes.

“I can tell you, for us, we have a lot of global partners that are partners of ours that are really multinational companies and international companies,” he said.

Since the 21-year-old Hachimura signed with the Southeast Division club, which has struggled with an Eastern Conference-worst 3-8 record, the Wizards have been proactive in producing Japanese-language content, from a website and Twitter account to a weekly podcast, with veteran bilingual broadcaster Zac Ikuma serving as Washington’s digital correspondent.

Van Stone said that while Hachimura’s Japanese following would certainly enjoy the team’s highlights, they would also be entertained with videos showing how Hachimura and his teammates spend their time off the court.

“The content that we are creating is what we call ‘behind-the-scenes’ and ‘off-the-court content’ that’s really showing (Hachimura’s) story, whether he’s missing his hometown in Japan or what he’s experiencing in his new hometown in Washington D.C. We really want to share that,” said Van Stone, who previously held senior positions with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the NHL’s Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes. “That allows us to build a better connectability with the fans here in Japan that haven’t had the opportunity to come over and see him live at Capital One Arena in D.C.

“We felt like we had the responsibility in our organization to make sure that the fans in Japan are part of his journey.”

Citing the success of Japanese baseball players in MLB over the last few decades, Fernandez described the present as the right time for basketball’s profile in Japan to rise with the emergence of Hachimura, who hails from Toyama and competed at Sendai’s Meisei High School before departing for the United States to play for Gonzaga University.

“This is the beginning of basketball being established at a different level,” said Fernandez, who serves as the vice president for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which oversees the Wizards as well as the NHL’s Washington Capitals and WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

“And to see it from youth and now into the developmental league and obviously Rui representing an incredible breakthrough in the NBA, it feels like being at the beginning of something. So we’re very honored to be in that position.”

Fernandez expressed the Wizards’ desire to become “Japan’s favorite team in the NBA” with the success of Hachimura, who will likely represent his native country at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

The group is scheduled to depart from Japan on Friday.