Rui Hachimura Is Home at Last

Ridiculed in his birthplace of Japan for his heritage, the Gonzaga star has found a place where he can be himself in Spokane, Washington, where he's exploded into one of college basketball's most dynamic talents.
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterDecember 7, 2018

Mark Few blew the final whistle on Gonzaga's basketball practice more than 20 minutes ago, but Rui Hachimura hasn't stopped shooting. Few, Gonzaga's head coach, has moved from the floor to the stands to talk with a scout from the San Antonio Spurs. And Hachimura, who'd been tipped off to the scout's attendance before practice, is giving the pair plenty to discuss.

One minute, he's calling for the ball from well beyond the college three-point line to show how his catch-and-shoot game could extend to NBA range. The next, he's dribble-driving hard into the key only to slam on the brakes, throw himself in reverse and swish a fadeaway jumper. And now he's taking off from damn near the free-throw line and gliding to the rim with such grace that a casual observer could conclude that this dunk is effortless.

In reality, none of this is effortless. Five years ago, Hachimura was just a Japanese high schooler with dreams of playing in the NBA and who had already hit his ceiling in his home country. Now he's the versatile 6'8", 230-pound college forward every Gonzaga opponent must plan for and the potentially positionless pro prospect NBA franchises won't let slip past the lottery.

Getting from there to here took more than just an international flight. It took the faith to commit to a college he'd never heard of in a city he couldn't find on a map in a country where he couldn't speak the language. And it took the courage of a boy, who only ever wanted to fit in, to be willing, once again, to stand out.

Few finishes his conversations and crosses the court to where Hachimura, 20, is wrapping up his workout. He congratulates his young star on a great performance, and Hachimura flashes a bright smile by way of reply. Then Few sits next to me and says: "I'm sure every coach always tells you, This is a great kid, but Rui is a great kid. The sacrifices he made to come over here and learn the language and become a player—all the good things that are happening in his life are well-deserved."

Rui Hachimura was 12 years old the first time he landed in America. Getting here for a family vacation had taken a couple of taxi rides and three unbelievably long flights over 25-plus hours. But while his mother and younger siblings crashed in their hotel room, Rui walked right out into Times Square. For a kid who had seen Tokyo, the lights and billboards of midtown Manhattan didn't dazzle him. And the throngs of people who pushed past didn't overwhelm him. Instead, they were comforting.

Rui Hachimura found that an easygoing demeanor and eye-opening basketball skills could gain him the acceptance in Japan that his biracial heritage could not.
Rui Hachimura found that an easygoing demeanor and eye-opening basketball skills could gain him the acceptance in Japan that his biracial heritage could not.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

"The people were more diverse in New York," he says. "In Japan, people look the same. In New York, people looked different. It was fun just to be a little brat walking around the city. It was new to me. I was anonymous."

In Toyama, the million-person metropolis on Japan's west coast where he was raised, Rui had been anything but anonymous as the oldest son of a Beninese father and a Japanese mother. In Japan, that made Rui a hafu, the term for a biracial person. And although Japanese society continues to progress as it diversifies, hafus still often face ridicule. Rui felt it in the long glances from strangers and the cold distance of classmates, but he broke down barriers with a perpetual smile and an undeniable athleticism that put him on teams whether parents or peers liked him or looked down on him.

As a boy, he'd tried karate, soccer and track and field, but the only sport that stuck was baseball, where he was best known as a slugger. He became obsessed with American culture, watching The Fast and the Furious movies with subtitles and trying to learn English between explosions and begging his parents to buy him hamburgers or pizza for every meal.

When he came to the U.S. on that initial visit, he noticed how many outdoor basketball courts there were and how popular the sport seemed. So when a friend extended an invite to the junior high team the next year, he accepted. And when the coach told him he could one day play in the NBA, he knew exactly where he wanted to go. But at that point only one Japanese player, Yuta Tabuse, had made the league in Rui's lifetime, and he'd only appeared in four games. If Rui was going to succeed in the pros, he'd have to carve the path himself.

In his final year of junior high, Rui helped guide his team to a second-place finish in a national tournament. Soon, he found his way into the national youth development program and into an elite private high school. In the fall of 2013, he got the first taste of how far basketball would stretch his geographical boundaries, as he traveled to Iran to represent Japan in the 2013 FIBA Asia U16 Championship and then moved to Meisei High School, a private boarding school almost 400 miles from his hometown. But he got a taste of success, too, having guided Japan to a jaw-dropping third-place finish in that FIBA tournament and then following that with a national championship at Meisei. Asked by a television reporter on the court how he felt after the latter win, he responded, "Basketball is fun!"

But even as he became a hero in his hometown, he still faced discrimination whenever his team traveled around Japan. "It was challenging being in other parts of the country because they didn't really know who I was," he says. "They looked at me like a fucking animal or something … It was part of the reason I wanted to come to the U.S. Everybody is different. I thought it would be good for me."

As he did as a boy, Rui responded by trying to stay upbeat and, perhaps more importantly, playing his way into people's consciousness. In 2014, Rui had his international coming-out party when he averaged a tournament-leading 22.6 points per game at the FIBA U17 World Championships. In his most memorable performance, he put up 25 points against an American team led by Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson. At every stop, he told anyone with a whistle, a camera or a tape recorder that he'd like to play American college basketball.

When he returned to Meisei after the tournament, he got some good news from Yosuke Takahashi, his team's athletic trainer. Takahashi had gone to Indiana State, and somehow Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd had tracked down his email address and asked him to pass along the Bulldogs' interest in his star player. Rui was thrilled, but he did have one question: "What's Gonzaga?"

Before Meisei's season began, Rui and Takahashi traveled to the United States to find out. To make the most of the trip, they decided to see the University of Arizona as well. In Tucson, Rui was shocked to discover a school in the middle of the desert but was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the hamburgers at In-N-Out and the Mexican food everywhere else. But in Spokane, Washington, which has a similar climate and terrain to Toyama, he felt more at home. That winter, he led Meisei to a second straight national championship. This time, he told the on-court reporter, "Basketball is really fun!"

In 2015, Gonzaga traveled to Japan to play in the Armed Forces Classic against Pittsburgh. While the game was a bust—the humidity had turned the basketball court into a slippery surface more like an ice skating rink—not all was lost from the trip. Rather than return with the team, Lloyd went to watch Rui play in person and extended him a scholarship offer. A month later, Hachimura led his high school to a third straight national championship. And this time, he told the on-court reporter, "Basketball is really, really fun!"

On his first official visit to Gonzaga, Hachimura wanted to go to a Safeway to get groceries, so Lloyd offered to take him. After Hachimura had collected his pancake mix and candy, he kept asking Lloyd for something else. Hachimura's parents speak some English, and he was studying at school and practicing with Takahashi, but his ability to understand far outpaced his ability to talk. To Lloyd, it sounded like Hachimura wanted Spam, so he sprang his star recruit loose on the canned food aisle. A dejected Hachimura shook his head and signaled that they should check out. Then, in the checkout lane, he spotted what he was looking for: SLAM magazine. Slowly, and with a generous display of hand gestures, he explained to Lloyd that he'd been on the cover in Japan but wanted an American edition. To Lloyd, the episode was at once a sign of the success Hachimura was coming from and of his long road ahead.

Before he left Japan, Hachimura was already the biggest basketball star the country had ever produced. The sport lags well behind sumo wrestling, soccer and baseball in popularity, but Hachimura still had fans regularly asking him for autographs and photographs toward the end of his senior year in high school. He grew uncomfortable with the attention and kept mainly to his teammates and family. He stopped giving out his phone number to strangers and in general tried to limit distractions as he studied for the SATs. In early 2016, on his fifth attempt, he got above Gonzaga's threshold and became eligible to enroll. That summer, he moved to Spokane.

Hachimura's first year at Gonzaga was a blur of practices, workouts, classes and intensive English tutoring.
Hachimura's first year at Gonzaga was a blur of practices, workouts, classes and intensive English tutoring.Young Kwak/Associated Press

When he arrived, he was delighted to discover that he was joining at the same time as a new video coordinator, Ken Nakagawa. Born in Los Angeles to a Japanese mother and an American father, Nakagawa was conversational in Japanese and could provide translation in a pinch when Google or hand gestures couldn't suffice in practice. Together, Nakagawa and Hachimura explored Spokane's Japanese offerings, eventually deciding that the Sukiyaki Inn in downtown offered the most authentic food.

Those explorations were some of the rare moments of levity in an otherwise exacting first year for Hachimura. In his first week on campus, he reported to the office of Steffany Galbraith, Gonzaga Athletics' Director of Academic Services, to fill out a medical intake form. The process of translating phrases such as "family history of cardiovascular disease" stretched what was typically a 10-minute process into a four-hour endeavor. It was the first of many long sessions Galbraith and Hachimura would spend together.

On weekdays, Hachimura would wake up for weightlifting at 7:30 a.m., go to class from 9 to noon and then again from 1 to 3 p.m., arrive late at practice, barely understand what the coaches barked at him for two hours, and then grab dinner to bring to tutoring, where he often stayed until 9 or 10 at night. Galbraith took to traveling with the team that season, rousing Hachimura from his room before team breakfasts, pulling him off the court after walkthroughs and plopping down next to him on charter planes. When she could sense he was at the end of his patience, she'd bribe him by letting him watch an episode of the Japanese reality show Terrace House in exchange for every 30 minutes of studying. "Rui is our most prized international student," Galbraith says. "He's our most improved from where he was at when he arrived."

Hachimura rarely saw the court that first season, averaging just 2.6 points in 4.6 minutes per game. He would have been happy to stay out of the spotlight, but the Japanese media wouldn't oblige. Reporters regularly trekked from all over the West Coast and even from Japan to track Hachimura; and at the Final Four that year, he saw more action during media availabilities than he did during the games.

"We were coaching that team, trying to win a national championship," Lloyd says. "We didn't get hung up on everything with Hachimura, and he had to keep up. That was the mentality. There were a lot of head-scratching moments, but the flashes of brilliance gave you the faith to keep believing."

Behind the scenes that season, Gonzaga's coaches cracked up as the lost-in-translation stories stacked up. There was the time Hachimura left a practice thinking Few had compared him to Gonzaga great Domantas (Domas) Sabonis, when, in fact, he had compared him to a dumbass after a boneheaded play. There was the time Few told Hachimura it looked like he was getting into a pillow fight in the post, and a trainer had to inform him that it had not been meant as a compliment. And there was the time that Gonzaga's hospitality staff had to tell Hachimura that he couldn't say he was vegan, eat the vegan meal and then take the meat from the team meal, too. But coaches couldn't help but notice that the brilliant basketball moments started translating as well.

After making two starts in his first two years at Gonzaga, Hachimura has become the focal point of the Zags attack, averaging 21.9 points and 6.1 rebounds through eight games.
After making two starts in his first two years at Gonzaga, Hachimura has become the focal point of the Zags attack, averaging 21.9 points and 6.1 rebounds through eight games.Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

Hachimura had improved his play plenty by practicing against big men such as Zach Collins and Przemek Karnowski, whom he guarded almost every day. And he had improved his English by listening to teammates' slang and blasting rap playlists on Spotify. "He always has a smile on his face, and he always nods," Few says. "And I always tell the staff, 'When he gives you that nod, what it means is he has no idea what the hell you're talking about.' That's zero absorption. We operated that first year under about 10 percent absorption. It was very difficult for him to get on the floor. Yet when he was on the floor, you had this marvelous athlete who was running and jumping and playing and was something to watch."

Last season, Hachimura was the Bulldogs' sixth man, averaging 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in 20.7 minutes per game. He wasn't a star yet, but when he was on the court, he used the most possessions (24.0 percent) of any rotation player and had the team's second-highest offensive rating (120.2), according to KenPom.com. He flirted with entering the NBA draft and was a projected first-round pick, but he felt like another year in Spokane would solidify his standing—and his understanding. After all, it wasn't until the beginning of this season that he learned what coaches meant when they told him to get to the "nail" on defense.

And although the American media has begun to catch on to his story, he still savors staying as far from the spotlight as he can in Spokane. "I liked leaving Japan," he says. "People don't know anything about me here. They just look at me as like another black person. That was so nice. I'm a little bit famous here now, but when I first got here, I really liked it."

While the U.S. is still roiled with racial tension, the diversity in big markets where NBA teams play gives him hope that he and his family can feel at home.

Killian Tillie can hear Rui Hachimura coming. When Hachimura isn't bounding down a basketball court, he tends to shuffle his feet instead of lifting them between steps. And as the scratches against the carpet between Gonzaga's athletic offices grow louder, Tillie turns from the table where we've been talking to see his teammate lower his hoodie and duck his head beneath the doorframe.

Tillie and Hachimura arrived at Gonzaga in the 2016 class, and they were roommates for two years. At first neither Tillie—who is French—nor Hachimura spoke English well, but they enjoyed parroting their teammates' slang and trying to find the right places for it in casual conversation. Hachimura relentlessly described things as "lit" his freshman year, before teammates intervened, telling him that if everything is lit, then nothing is. Tillie and Hachimura would drag each other to French or Japanese restaurants, respectively, and they would watch American action movies. But they mostly bonded during NBA games. "Basketball is an international language," Tillie says. "Everyone can understand it. It brings people together from different cultures."

This season, Hachimura and Tillie were supposed to be two of the most talented members of Gonzaga's loaded frontcourt. But when Tillie underwent ankle surgery in October, Hachimura had to carry more of the load, and he's responded to the tune of 22.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. And how he plays the rest of the season will determine just how far No. 1 Gonzaga goes and how high he is selected in the 2019 NBA draft. But right now, two teammates just want to tease each other.

"What's up, Billions?" Hachimura says.

"Hey, Lucas," Tillie replies.

"Lucas?" I ask, and Tillie explains: "He can say his name now, but he couldn't when he first got here. He couldn't pronounce his R's or his L's. We'd ask his name, and it sounded like Louie, so that's what we called him. So it was Louie, then it was Rui and now it's Lucas."

For a few more months, at least, Hachimura can call himself whatever he wants. But after that—after he becomes the first Japanese player selected in the NBA draft to sign with a franchise, and after he stars for the Japanese national team in the 2020 Tokyo Games—he'll have to choose. By then, fans from around the world will want to know his name.


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