When the 2019-2020 B. League season was forced to end abruptly last month because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Utsunomiya Brex were among the contenders who lost their chance to capture the league title.
Nevertheless, it was still a special season for Ryan Rossiter, who has been one of Utsunomiya's star players since arriving in Japan in 2013, as he obtained Japanese citizenship during the season and made his debut for the men's national team in February.
The 206-cm forward/center started in all 40 games during the shortened season, averaging 18.0 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals for the Brex, who finished second in the East Division with a 31-9 record.
Last Thursday, The Japan Times had an exclusive opportunity to conduct a video interview with the 31-year-old, who reflected on this past season and his career.
The season came to abrupt end. How do you feel about that?
I think, as a competitor and as a player, you want to finish the season, you want to finish what you started. But at the end of the day, this is a global crisis. Fortunately, it’s not too bad for Japan for now, But America is very bad, China, South Korea, Italy. … So you have to understand this is more important than basketball and more important than sports.
What are your thoughts about the season for both the team and yourself?
I thought we had a really good season. I thought we started real strong, finished strong. We’ve had a little rough stretch (around) the Emperor’s Cup (the single-elimination All-Japan Championship). And after the Emperor’s Cup, we just (got) Jawad (Williams), we just (got) Kai (Toews, both as newcomers). So I think it was kind of a step backward to get them comfortable. But the bigger picture would’ve paid off at the end of the season with them being more comfortable. Kai being aggressive, Jawad looking for shots more. So I think we sacrificed a little bit in the season to be ready for the playoffs.
You guys were in a great position to get another championship (the Brex won the title in the league’s inaugural 2016-2017 season). So it must’ve been disappointing to miss that opportunity.
Yeah, for sure. I think having a chance to win a championship is never guaranteed. It’s not something that happens every season. But again, we all understand what’s going on. It’s a little easier (for it) to have happened this way as opposed to something on the court we couldn’t control.
You obtained Japanese citizenship during the season, so personally, it was a special year, wasn’t it?
Yeah, for sure. That’s one of (the things) that definitely stand out. When I got the passport, I saw how happy the fans were, that’s the B. League in general, not just Brex fans, they were all very happy and supportive of me. So it really meant a lot to me to see how they reacted to that, and to be able to kind of further my career in Japan. It was great.
When did you start playing basketball?
I mean, my whole life. My dad played in college (at Loyola University Maryland). My older brother, he’s only a few years older (his brother Steve was a teammate of current NBA star Stephen Curry at Davidson College), but he was always playing since I was around. So I mean, from before I (could) walk, I’ve been playing my whole life.
Did you play other sports growing up?
I played baseball until sophomore year in high school.
What was your position?
How good were you?
I was a good pitcher. I couldn’t hit, and I couldn’t field at all. But I was a good pitcher. My uncle pitched in Notre Dame. So he told me a lot when I was growing up.
What was your best pitch?
Probably just straight fastball. Challenge a hitter and make him beat me.
You played basketball at Siena College. Who else recruited you?
My final three were probably Siena, Providence and then Davidson offered me but they didn’t have any space, so if I would’ve gone to a prep school, I (would've) went there. But I didn’t want to go to a prep school. So there was Sienna and Providence. And I had a really good time at Sienna. I really liked the coach, coach (Fran) McCaffery, and the team. So it was a pretty easy choice, after my visits.
And after college, you played in France (for the Denain ASC Voltaire) and NBA D-League (for the Canton Charge).
Yeah, it was great. France, obviously my first professional year, so everything was new to me, living overseas was new to me. So there was a lot of adjustments in my personal life, more so than on the court at that time because I was so used to being in America and New York, and kind of threw myself into Europe. So that was a good year, just get myself OK to live overseas, and know that I can deal with it on my own, no problem. And then, the D-League’s tough because it’s such a crazy league. A lot of characters there, a lot of different guys, but it was a really good experience. I played for a good organization in the (Cleveland) Cavaliers, with a good coach, so I think I learned a lot in the year before I came out to Japan.
After that, you came to Japan to play for the Brex. Back in February, after you played for the Japan national team for the first time against Taiwan, you were talking about why you chose the jersey number “0” (he wears “22” for the Brex) and said it was because of your teammate and former NBA guard Yuta Tabuse. You said he was a big reason you came to Japan. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah, I’d really never known much about Japan. Basketball or even Japan as a country in general. You hear a lot about Europe. You hear about American players going overseas, usually (they’re) going to Europe to play. So I really didn’t know much about Japan. It just seemed so different than America. I was a little nervous. Yuta had watched my game tape from the D-League and said how badly he wanted to play with me. He really liked my style, and the pick and roll, and the way I can run and shoot. So I was kind of thinking about it and had tons of questions, and Yuta would say, “Man, let’s get on the phone and talk. And you can ask anything you want, I’ll tell you.” And we got together one night and talked. Spoke for about 45 minutes. And he just made it sound so good to me, just the style and I could hear how much he wanted to play with me on the court. And (he) answered all my questions about just life in general, Japan. And after the conversation, I went from “I don’t know if I want to do this to” (to) “let’s sign a contract, let’s get it going.”
Tabuse is still a mentor for you?
Yeah, for sure. Absolutely. I was kind of (learning) the way he prepares, how he takes care of himself. More so his mental approach to the game, if we put in a play or scouting after practice, just kind of see him on the zone, going through everything in his head and how it might happen in the game, what might happen. And the more I talk to him, (the more I) kind of get into his head. We have a lot of the same philosophies and thought processes about basketball, and usually we are always on the same page. Yeah, to this day I still try to watch him and kind of learn anything I can.
You have been in Japan a long time with the Brex. Who are you closest with on the team?
I mean, we still have a good team in terms of chemistry on the court, off the court. Whether we get a new player, we kind of fit in real easily. Obviously, Yuta, Nabe (Hironori Watanabe), (Yusuke) Endo have been here since my first year, so I’ve had a really good relationship with them. We’ve been there a lot on the court, off the court. So we’ve kind of had different bonds, just being here together so long.
Having spent many years in Japan now, what do you like about it?
I really enjoy just the culture and its kind of nice how everything is, everyone’s so respectful, and, obviously, respect is such a big part of Japanese culture with kōhai (generally refers to younger colleagues), senpai (older colleagues) just in general. But everyone is so welcoming and nice and it’s a very safe country to live. I’m a very social, kind of outgoing person. So I like being out there and walking down the street, or walk to the supermarket and just say hello to people. So just from the first year, I felt really comfortable here, that’s only grown since then.
You are from Staten Island, which is part of New York City, right?
Yeah, I mean, it’s part of New York City, but it’s actually way more like Japan in terms of … it’s more residential, so it’s more like outside of Tokyo. So it kind of reminds me of Tochigi a little bit. It’s houses, yeah, it’s not really apartments. It’s more houses and a little more spread out. More fast-paced than in Tochigi, but it’s not like Manhattan.
Do you have places to visit for fun in Tochigi?
When I can, I like to get to Tokyo. I do like the fast-paced life, I miss it in Tochigi. So I do like to just get out to Shibuya, Shinjuku, to just really walk around, wander, get some coffee or something to just be around a lot of people.
How are you studying Japanese?
Just a lot of time with textbooks, and just repetition, flashcards. Team manager/translator Toshi (Toshiaki Kato) has really helped me a lot. We go to coffee shops together, just kind of to sit there, talk to each other, he helped me with different sentences, and writing in kanji, understand everything. So he was a big part. He really helped me study. I’m kind of texting him all the time, and saying “Hey man, why is this being this, and this is this?”
You've said people would say your brother was better than you growing up and that was one of the biggest chips on your shoulder. But you have played in the NCAA tournament (in 2008, 2009 and 2010) and have been successful in Japan winning championships and an MVP (in the 2015-2016 season in the NBL, a predecessor of the B. League). Do you think you have removed the chip from your shoulder now?
I think it was more so when I was growing up. A kid through high school, through maybe my first year college, and you know, my brother is my best friend, we have a great relationship to this day. But now it's more so he helps me (in) a lot of stuff whether it’s training or nutrition. He’s right there with me. But knowing the chip to get to the next level was definitely there. So I still feel like being an underdog and feel like there are a lot of guys that went to bigger colleges than I did or are better athletes than I am, stronger than I am. So I use that to motivate myself a little bit. Probably just the motivation has changed, but I still have a chip on my shoulder for a lot of things.
You have also said that you don’t care about your stats as long as your team wins. But when you scored 52 points in a game (the league record) last season, it was when your brother was visiting. Maybe then you did care about your own performance and wanted to show him how you've improved.
Yeah for sure. I actually didn’t know he was coming here. He just knocked on my door in Japan and I opened my door and he was standing there. So he just totally surprised me. He talked to Toshi, and booked his flight. Toshi told him how to get out here. And he just showed up at my doorstep. So it was more special because I didn’t know he was coming. So I wasn’t prepared for it. I was just like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he came for the week. So the first game, I didn’t tell myself I’ve got to score 50 points for him. But, like you said, definitely I was more excited and I was more nervous. You've got to play good for him. He’s here. You’ve got to show him. So it was a different mindset for that game, for sure.
You have a chance to play at the Olympics, which was recently postponed to next year because of the coronavirus. Maybe it’s good for the Japan national team to have the extra year to get better?
Yeah, definitely. I think the league’s been improving, the players are improving. And look at the three guys that weren’t here this year. Another year in the NBA for Rui (Hachimura of the Washington Wizards), it would just be better experience. Another year for Yuta (Watanabe of the Memphis Grizzlies), wherever he goes, if he remains in the NBA or not is another thing. And whatever (Texas Legends’ Yudai) Baba decides to do, if he comes from the G League this year, he’s back in Japan next year. And he’s going to share all that experience with his teammates and just continue to build the league and every player.
Do you know what you want to do after you're done as a player?
I don’t know. … Hopefully, I have a long time left to play the game. I try to take care of my body and make sure I’m healthy, eat the right way, have a longer career. I do feel like I enjoy coaching, and even on Brex helping younger guys or kind of trying to work out with the guys. So I’m sure that’ll be something with basketball, whether it’s coaching or some sort of training, I’m not sure. But I'd definitely like to stay involved in the game and help on some level.
Are you planning to go to the U.S. to visit your family and friends?
Yeah, I’m going to go back eventually, but right now New York and LA (where is brother lives) are so bad. It’s not really worth getting there. And everyone in my family, luckily, is healthy and safe. So I wouldn't want to go there and (risk) me getting them sick or get me sick. So for now, I’m in Japan.
What's going to be the goal for the team and for yourself for next season? I mean, winning a championship is too obvious, so it be would nice if you don’t say just that.
I mean, I get it. Honestly, it sounds cliche, (but) it’s what you are supposed to say. But if you are in the locker room with us, or you are on the court. I could have four points and if we win, it’s cool, I’m happy. I don’t need to score … I’ll be upset with myself if I played poorly. But I’ve had games where I had eight points, played really well, made the right play and Endo was hot, Jeff (Gibbs) was hot, Mako (Makoto Hiejima) was hot. So I don’t need to just start shooting because I need my points, I’ve got to get my average. If it’s their night, it’s their night. We’re going to win, and that’s all that matters. One thing I love about Japan and Japan basketball is, winning is the most important. It’s never, ‘Hey, we need you to score more.’ Like China, if you don’t score 35 points, you’re in trouble. And I really like that about Japan, just make a right play, make a winning play. And that’s all that matters. So my only real goal is to be better than I am today. And sorry, but winning a championship.
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