“Damn! Is this the Finals?” the reporter said. “This is crazy.”
But for Hachimura, a 21-year-old Wizards rookie, this is life.
In the first few weeks of his NBA career, Hachimura, the league’s first Japanese-born lottery pick, has been one of the most covered athletes in the sport. After every game, the 6-foot-8 forward conducts interviews away from the Wizards’ locker room while standing in front of an NEC banner, one of his many sponsors. He tries to be cautious yet courteous; he’s polite but reveals little while staring above reporters’ heads.
Hachimura understands his unusual responsibilities but doesn’t want to lose sight of why people care in the first place.
“It’s been like this, and it’s getting bigger, but for me, it’s not a big deal for me. It’s just what it is,” Hachimura said. “But I really have to focus on what I have to do in the game of basketball. Basketball is my priority.”
Born in Japan’s Toyama prefecture to a Japanese mother and a father from Benin, Hachimura grew up speaking Japanese and only started speaking English regularly when he went to college to play for Gonzaga three years ago. He is only the third Japanese player to appear in a regular season NBA game, and he’s the first with star potential. He represents his home country in international tournaments, with the 2020 Olympics set to be held in Tokyo.
In terms of popularity in Japan, basketball ranks below baseball and sumo wrestling. Huge hordes of Japanese media tailed baseball star Shohei Ohtani in his first two major league seasons — 120 were credentialed for his first starts — and they long followed legendary player Ichiro Suzuki before his retirement this year. Now Hachimura is receiving similar treatment, showing that his presence — even before a solid start in which he averaged 13.6 points and 6.1 rebounds across his first eight games — has boosted the nation’s interest in the sport.
Before the season, Hachimura was the subject of an 50-minute documentary on NHK, a Japanese public broadcaster. Following his Oct. 23 regular season debut against the Dallas Mavericks, Hachimura appeared on the front page of several major nationwide newspapers’ print evening editions. One special section unfurled into the size of a poster, declaring in kanji and hiragana: “[Hachimura] opened the door to the NBA.”
“I guess,” Hachimura mumbled in English, recently reading the not-so-subtle headline.
Hachimura, at least publicly, sees himself as just another player, not a pioneer. During his first road trip, he had to bring Chick-fil-A for the veterans and carry Thomas Bryant’s sneakers to the bus after shoot-around in Dallas. He doesn’t really enjoy taking late-night charter flights, and playing in the NBA has been an adjustment.
“It kind of feels weird to me every day, you know, just [coming] to the practice, playing in the NBA games,” Hachimura said. “It feels weird.”
Living in the fishbowl also has been a strange experience.
“I think just them being ahead of the curve knowing where we’re going to be before we know is kind of cool. … It’s insane but cool at the same time,” rookie teammate Justin Robinson said of the Japanese media. “[Hachimura] knows — I wouldn’t say it this way — but he kind of has Japan on his back in a way. And obviously I think there is internal pressure.”
The intense interest in Hachimura parallels Chinese star Yao Ming’s rookie season in the NBA. On Nov. 2, 2002, the third game of the season, 10 Chinese journalists made the trip while nine Chinese television networks and 18 international broadcasters showed the game between the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors, according to reports. Yao’s Hall of Fame career in Houston continues to drive massive interest in the NBA in China.
Seventeen years later, for Hachimura’s Oct. 30 home debut against the Rockets, the NBA issued 38 credentials to Japanese media members.
Japanese wire service Kyodo News will be at all 82 Wizards regular season games — the first time the agency has covered a single player in the NBA. A Tokyo-based photographer who has been in Washington for the past two weeks estimates his company will spend at least $10,000 in expenses.
“Obviously our focus is on Rui more than the team,” said Daisuke Sugiura, an NBA freelance reporter who lives in New York City, usually covering the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, but who has been sent to Washington this season. “A few outlets have already asked me to do a one-on-one. I told them it’s not easy. Yeah, I don’t think it’s going to happen. They want his quotes as much as possible.”
Much like when he’s on the floor, Hachimura keeps a game face on during interviews. He’s used to it — even at Gonzaga, four to six Japanese reporters would attend each game, rising to almost 20 during March Madness, according to the school’s sports information director, Barrett Henderson. Only by watching Hachimura closely can a trace of media fatigue be seen.
When the questions pause, he does not linger. Catching eye contact with a familiar face such as a Wizards staffer or his agent, Hachimura will squeeze through the scrum and walk away.
After his Nov. 2 postgame media session, Hachimura moved away from reporters, then noticed one strolling alongside him. Hachimura examined the reporter from head to toe, never breaking stride or responding to whatever was said in Japanese.
“He’s testing how much he can open up. He doesn’t know what the media does yet, right?” said Yuka Chujo, who interviewed Hachimura for the NHK documentary. “Maybe positive. Maybe negative. He has to be very careful right now. He’s very careful, which is understood.”
Some who know Hachimura worry about all this attention. They sense the weight of expectations placed upon his shoulders, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it.
“After he came back to Japan [after the draft], everybody was watching him, everybody was curious about each word he said. Those words he said, all the media picked up and put it on Internet or newspaper. He never told me about this, but he was a little stressed that everyone was watching him in Japan,” said Yosuke Takahashi, Hachimura’s assistant basketball coach in high school. “I think Japanese people expect that he succeeds in the NBA from the first year. But in reality, it’s not that easy.”
Joji Sakamoto, Hachimura’s middle school coach, shared a similar sentiment.
“Honestly, I am a little afraid of the pressure he’s under. He is still only 21 years old,” he said. “I just hope he’ll keep playing basketball as long as he can.”
For his part, Hachimura performs like an old pro inside the media vortex. He mostly wears Jordan Brand, another sponsor, when in front of cameras. While speaking in Japanese, Hachimura has been known to repeat a variation of the same response that he and the team must play better on offense, on defense and in rebounding. He will interpret most personal questions as an opportunity to talk about the team.
In a rare quiet moment away from the clicks of the cameras, Hachimura admitted the media obligations can grow tiresome but that he keeps his mission at the front of his mind.
“Yeah, of course. But I can’t do anything. This is not what I can control, outside things. I just have to focus on what I have to do,” he said.
“I feel like one thing I really try to focus on is how much I can focus on playing basketball. Even though the outside things, like the media, my endorsements and stuff, all that stuff, those for me are nothing. But basketball is the first priority.”
Akiko Kashiwagi and Rick Maese contributed reporting from Japan.