Forging his own path, Rui Hachimura embraces quest to become the face of Japanese athletes

Chase Hughes

LAS VEGAS - There is no shortage of stars at the Las Vegas Summer League, ones that migrate packs of media and change the tenor of the room when they enter at Thomas and Mack Center or Cox Pavilion to watch a game. Then there is Rui Hachimura, who among everyone there, has quite easily the most reporters assigned only to him.

Dozens of Japanese media members made the trip to Las Vegas to document his first games as a professional. All of them represent national networks and outlets. They are the Japanese equivalents of ESPN, CNN and NBC and Hachimura routinely makes their nightly news.

Hachimura is drawing major interest back in his home country as he continues to blaze trails as a Japanese basketball player. He is the first Japanese player to be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft and is well on his way to becoming the best from his country to ever play the sport.

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"I would say Rui is No. 1 [most famous athlete in Japan]," Kohei Kosaka of Nippon TV said. "Our station has his news almost every day, everything he does. All of the day in our station, all of the news shows are about Rui."

Kosaka said the most famous athletes ever from Japan are Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, but Hachimura is a good bet to pass them. Getting drafted in the first round "changed everything," according to Kosaka.

That fame has given Hachimura a significant platform. In addition to his fans in the U.S., he will have Japan, a country of 180 million people, behind him. That means a lot of children looking towards the example he sets.

Hachimura has a large responsibility and is embracing it.

"I want to be the face of athletes in Japan. I want to be the guy," Hachimura told NBC Sports Washington. "When you think about athletes in Japan, I want people to think it's me. I have a bigger goal. I'm doing it for my family."

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Hachimura's family background is unique. His father is from Benin. His mother is from Japan. As he described in his introductory press conference, he considers himself "black," but with "a Japanese soul."

He says his racial identity has made it hard to adjust to new environments in the past. It made him stand out growing up in Japan and then as a college student at Gonzaga University.

Hachimura wants kids growing up now in similar shoes to follow his lead.

"Right now there are a lot of half kids. It's called hāfu, like mixed kids. They are black and Japanese. There are a lot of kids like that in Japan," he said.

"I know for sure they are watching me playing. I just want to encourage and inspire them by watching me playing. I am doing it for those kinds of kids."

Hachimura can also plant the seeds for a new generation of Japanese basketball players. Like many kids where he's from, he grew up playing baseball, and loved it, before switching to basketball at 13.

Five years later, he was on the campus of Gonzaga beginning what would be a decorated three-year career. He was playing for legendary head coach Mark Few and learning moves from NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton at practice.

Now Hachimura has a chance to show what a Japanese player is capable of in the NBA. When he debuts, he will be only the third NBA player from the country, but will right away have the most prominent role any of them have ever had.

Basketball is such a global sport now that international players swept the NBA's major postseason player awards, including MVP (Giannis Antetokounmpo), Defensive Player of the Year (Rudy Gobert), Rookie of the Year (Luka Doncic) and Most Improved (Pascal Siakam). Players come from all different countries, some with differences in their game that reflect where they are from.

Hachimura said his background will show in his demeanor on the floor.

"No emotion. I have to be calm with whatever happens. Sometimes maybe we are losing, but I have to be calm that we are coming back," he said.

"I have to be patient and that comes from my Japanese culture. We are patient and just work little by little."

Hachimura is used to charting his own path, and he embraces leading the way.

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Forging his own path, Rui Hachimura embraces quest to become the face of Japanese athletes originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

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