Years before his rise to prominence at Gonzaga University and with the NBA’s Washington Wizards, Rui Hachimura was just another Okuda Junior High School student.
His junior high school coach, Joji Sakamato, who also happened to be his first basketball coach, recently caught up with the Wizards and reminisced about Hachimura’s basketball beginnings.
In an interview conducted at the school in Toyama Prefecture, Sakamoto recalled that Hachimura’s basketball-playing classmates on the boys team stated that they had the highest of aspirations: to be Japan’ top junior-high team.
What was Sakamoto’s response? “I told them, ‘I don’t know about No. 1 in the country, but if you want to win we need to bring in a tall player.”
He continued: “One of our upperclassmen was Yudai Baba [the current Melbourne United player]. But Hachimura was by far the tallest kid. So I told them to bring him to practice, but he never showed up. I told them again to join forces and do whatever you have to do to bring him to practice.”
Eventually, Hachimura showed up for practice as a seventh-grader.
One day, the youngster displayed frustration while struggling in a ball-handling drill and punched the ball. Sakamoto told him that was unacceptable. Then he offered some sage advice: “Maybe you can just grab it.”
It turned out to be a seminal moment in Rui’s development.
“And he palmed the ball,” marveled Sakamoto, “and lifted it with very little effort as if it were a baseball, and I said, ‘Whoa, kid!’ Just like an NBA player! That was the first NBA reference I made.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Sakamoto uttered that word about his pupil, who was the No. 9 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and completed his rookie season inside the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida.
“I’ve made many NBA references along the way,” Sakamoto said. “But Hachimura already had the parts of a future NBA player. I told him that. And his teammates were just amazed at how fast he was picking up the game.”
One thing that Sakamoto says he admires about Hachimura is how he doesn’t demonstratively show that he’s fatigued when he’s playing.
Or as the coach put it: “When he’s tired he never shows it. He’s been that way the whole time.”
Speaking about Hachimura’s ascension to the world’s premier league, Sakamoto admitted with pride that he watches highlights of Wizards games. “Now I’ll watch game footage and I learn a lot from him,” the coach stated.
He added: “He continues to amaze me and now I am learning from him.”
In September, Hachimura was named to the All-NBA Rookie Second Team. In 48 games, he averaged 13.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
Watch the Japanese-language interview with English subtitles here.