When J.R. Sakuragi — well, he was known as J.R. Henderson at the time — was initially asked if he wanted to come play in Japan he turned it down, saying he didn’t “know anything about” the country.
He changed his mind once he realized how eager the Japanese team, the Aisin SeaHorses, was to sign him. So he came to Japan, where he would play for the next two decades.
“Coach (Kimikazu) Suzuki, he had already went to my college, UCLA, and asked about me and did some research about me,” Sakuragi, 43, told The Japan Times in an exclusive interview late last month, a few weeks after he announced his retirement. “And he said a lot of great things about me, so I just came and observed Japan, and started (playing the) next year.
Signing with the SeaHorses in 2001 ended up being a fortuitous decision. Sakuragi spent the rest of his career with the Kariya, Aichi Prefecture-based team, which currently plays in the B. League as the SeaHorses Mikawa. During his long stint with the team, Sakuragi helped turn the SeaHorses into a perennial powerhouse in Japanese basketball.
After signing Sakuragi, the SeaHorses captured seven league championships in the JBL and NBL while also winning nine Emperor’s Cups at the All-Japan Championship. Sakuragi was the JBL MVP for three consecutive years, starting from the 2010-11 season.
The 203-cm forward wrote his name in the record book as well. Among Japan’s top-flight leagues, he’s second on the all-time list with 10,991 points and 6,011 rebounds and ranks first with 2,708 assists. He played in 710 games, third-most all time.
Sakuragi, who helped the UCLA Bruins win the NCAA title as a freshman in 1995, had brief tenure in the NBA before landing in Japan.
He was selected in the second round of the 1998 NBA Draft by the Vancouver Grizzlies and competed during the 1998-99 season alongside Mike Bibby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Bryant Reeves.
Sakuragi, though, recalls being left with a sour taste from his stint in the NBA.
He looks back on his days at UCLA saying, “it was just pure basketball.” The NBA “was totally different,” which had a lot to do with the business side of the game.
“Like, no passion, guys are not fighting hard, they are fighting for something else,” Sakuragi said of his time in the NBA, in which he averaged 3.2 points and 1.6 rebounds in 30 games in the 1998-99 season. “They are thinking about other things, coaches are thinking about other things, instead of fighting hard to win and play basketball together.”
He also said he was disappointed players who were getting paid better would get more playing time than him.
“I was like, ‘What is this?’ I thought I was going to play basketball and be the best player and compete for minutes,” Sakuragi said. “I was ready to do that, compete for playing time and compete for this and that.”
Unlike in the NBA, Sakuragi certainly had a much more fun and successful time in Japan. The longevity of his time spent speaks for itself in that regard.
His love of the game, however, may not have always been reflected in his demeanor on the floor. Sakuragi feels he’s been misunderstood throughout his career because how his facial expression and body language were interpreted.
“A lot of people don’t understand the difference between passion and bad attitude,” said Sakuragi, who stated at his retirement news conference that he wants to be recognized as a nice guy moving forward. “If I didn’t have my passion, without having it in the game, we would not have won as much at Aisin.
“A lot of people mistake that, ‘Man, he just looks so whining all the time, you’ve got a bad attitude. It’s not that. It’s just I hate losing.”
Sakuragi would not have played as long as he did without a love for the game. Playing in so many games required him to make sacrifices on and off the court.
Sakuragi first began to feel the need to do something different when he was 27 and had to be carried out of a game against the Toshiba Brave Thunders on a stretcher after hurting his back.
“That was a big wake-up call,” Sakuragi said. “Like ‘I’ve got to start taking care of my body.’ So that was the point. I started stretching, making sure my body was prepared to play.”
Then one summer, he purchased a video of a karate instructor who insisted flexibility is the key for longevity in sports.
So Sakuragi worked on stretching exercises. He targeted his hamstrings in particular, because when they were tight, it’d also affect his back.
He also became more careful about his diet, getting support from his wife, who he married in 2010. He made sure to avoid things that could cause inflammation, which would lead to pain in his joints.
Sakuragi was especially cautious about sugar, which is not only contained in sweets but in many other foods as well.
Thanks to this dedication, Sakuragi was pain free when he retired, something he’s proud of because many who retired at his age can’t say the same.
“I didn’t want to be remembered as a guy who limped out of the court, couldn’t walk after the game,” said Sakuragi, who became a Japanese citizen in 2007 and later played for the national team. “I didn’t want to be the guy.”
Even though he’s hung up his sneakers, Sakuragi isn’t straying far from the floor. He’s started a new career as a technical advisor for the Aisin AW Wings of the Women’s Japan Basketball League with the objective of eventually becoming a head coach.
He said he started thinking about a career in coaching when he was about 35. He’s doesn’t feel like it would be a completely new role, since he was essentially a coach on the floor toward the end of his career.
In fact, Sakuragi said he began making his own playbook about three years ago, though it appears to be completely confidential. Laughing, he said he hasn’t shared it with the SeaHorses or even close friends.
As a coach, Sakuragi wants to have players who are coachable and want to learn the game.
“(I don’t want guys with) a bunch of egos, guys who just want to do their own things,” he said. “It’d be like my experience in the NBA. I’m not going to like it. So wherever that is, men’s or women’s, I don’t care. I just want to enjoy my job when I’m doing it.”