He had never considered it possible someone would ask him to fill such a role.
“I was like: ‘Oh, me? No way,’ ” Hachimura said Monday on the second floor of Saitama Super Arena, in a hallway where he held an informal version of a postgame news conference. “I talked to my agents, and they were like, yeah, I should do it, so I decided to do it. It was a great moment — one of the best moments of my life. I’m so proud.”
Unlike his countrywoman Naomi Osaka or established Olympic heroes Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky, Hachimura, entering his third NBA season with the Washington Wizards, has no titles at his sport’s pro level and no medals to defend.
His role in Tokyo is different. His task is to lead the first men’s basketball team Japan has sent to the Olympics since 1976.
The Akatsuki Five, as they are called, are the lowest-ranked team in the Olympic men’s basketball tournament (No. 42), having qualified by virtue of, well, hosting the tournament. They are not expected to contend for a medal. They lost their first game of the group stage, 88-77, to world No. 2 Spain and now must prepare for a contest Thursday against Slovenia, whose leader, Luka Doncic, scored a menacing 48 points in his Olympic debut.
Yet Hachimura will face an intense level of attention from the Japanese media for as long as Japan stays alive. Its underdog status might relieve him of a little pressure to carry the squad to the medal round, but it does nothing to negate Hachimura’s celebrity status.
“A huge stage,” Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard said last month. “A whole ball of wax for him, pressure-wise, to have the world watching and to play against some of the best teams in the world.”
Back in Washington, the Wizards are hoping some of that pressure makes Hachimura more comfortable being a go-to scorer and, eventually, a vocal leader in the NBA.
The forward matched a game-high 20 points shooting 8 for 21 from the floor Monday, including 4 for 11 from three-point range. He provided the biggest highlight of the night, curling through the lane for a one-handed dunk in the third quarter. He was the one who spotted up at the top of the key to nail a jumper that tied the score in the second quarter — before Spain went on a 19-0 run.
“This is our first game of the Olympics. It’s a different experience,” Hachimura said. “Spain, they’ve been in the Olympics for a long time; they play at a high level. For us, we’re a young team. We’ve just got to play these games — especially in the third quarter, we had a great stretch — we’ve just got to play like that from the beginning. Next game, we have to prepare for Luka.”
Neither the loss, the throng of reporters waiting after or the thought of formidable future opponents appeared to ruffle Hachimura on Monday. The 23-year-old is naturally even-keeled, and beyond that, he is used to shouldering the weight of a nation’s expectations.
Hachimura was a star in Japan even before the Wizards took the No. 9 pick in 2019 and made him the first Japanese player selected in the first round of the NBA draft. The son of a Beninese father and Japanese mother, Hachimura, alongside Osaka, is also an emblem of the increasingly multicultural society Japan is showing off at these Games — despite that he isn’t always accepted because of his background. Hachimura tweeted in Japanese in May about facing a consistent stream of racial abuse online.
But within the confines of his role as a basketball player, Hachimura is revered as a winner in Japan. He leads the Akatsuki Five alongside Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe and guard Yudai Baba, who plays on the Melbourne United team that won the championship in Australia’s domestic league this past season.
Their name, though it predates Hachimura, is fitting for the time. Akatsuki translates to “dawn” in Japanese, a nod to both Japan’s nickname, “Land of the Rising Sun,” and a hopeful start of a new, fruitful era of Japanese basketball that Hachimura will, ideally, spearhead.
He helped achieve the first step in that mission Monday simply by stepping on court at the Olympics.
“It’s the first time we’ve been in the Olympics as a team, for me too,” Hachimura said. “… It was a good experience. We have two more games to go.”