The Japanese Connection
Owner and founder of Babcock Hoops, Matt Babcock, discusses his longtime friendship with Japan-based sports agent Kenjiro Iwano, his introduction to Japanese basketball, and the evolution of professional basketball in Japan, that has led to the country producing homegrown NBA level talent.
In 2012, I received a phone call from an old friend, Kenjiro “Kenji” Iwano. During that call, Kenji expressed his interest in becoming a basketball player agent. Although I didn’t know much about Japanese basketball at the time, I knew that was something I could help him with.
First, let me tell you about how I met Kenji. The year was 1994, and I was 10 years old. My dad was the head coach at Arizona Western College, a junior college in Yuma, Arizona. An 18-year-old Kenji showed up at my dad’s office unannounced on the first day of school. Through a translator, he explained that he came from Japan, enrolled in school, and intended to play on the basketball team. He did not qualify to get into a four-year university because of his inability to speak English fluently and he was referred to Arizona Western because of the quality basketball program. My dad looked at Kenji, a modest 5’6”, and was understandably skeptical. He warned Kenji that their team’s talent level was high, but agreed to let him try out nonetheless.
That Arizona Western team had more than a handful of players that went on to be key contributors at NCAA Division I programs. The team’s top players that year were Denmark Reid and Ed “Booger” Smith. As a high school senior, Denmark was named “Mr. Basketball” in the state of Oregon and went on to be the leading scorer at New Mexico State after two years at Arizona Western. Booger Smith was a playground legend from Brooklyn, New York, who at one point was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and in the movie “Soul in the Hole.” Needless to say, that team was really good — Kenji’s chances of making the team were slim.
Later that day, the team scrimmaged and Kenji had his chance. After about two minutes of play, it was clear that he was far outmatched and did not belong on the floor with that team. Subsequently, my dad pulled Kenji from the floor and sat down with him. He told him that he would not be able to play on his team, but he would create a manager position for him. Although visibly disappointed, Kenji agreed.
After several years of being a manager at Arizona Western, Kenji learned English and went on to earn a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State University. There, he served as the manager for the basketball team and earned his college degree. Kenji had no intention of giving up basketball once his schooling was complete. He went on to work in a multitude of roles for the top professional team in Japan, the Aisin Seahorses, for 13 years.
Fast forward to 2012, Kenji and I set up his agency business in Japan. We co-represented many players and coaches there, and executed over 100 contracts together within a five-year period. Today, I am no longer working as an agent, but Kenji remains an active agent, establishing himself as one of the most influential figures within Japanese basketball.
Through my experience as an agent, I accumulated quite a bit of experience with international basketball. I conducted business in more than 50 countries, and my first full-time job out of college was as an assistant coach for the professional basketball team Virtus Bologna, in Bologna, Italy. It is widely accepted that the highest quality of basketball outside of the NBA is in Europe, and I am one to agree with that. Most of my international business before I partnered with Kenji was in Europe. While I generally enjoyed doing business in Europe and had many fruitful dealings there, European basketball also caused me a fair share of headaches. Let me explain.
Any agent, coach, executive, or player that has spent much time doing business within European basketball will surely have stories. Issues with salaries being paid on time, or at all, is the most common narrative. Other problems I have personally dealt with include teams forging signatures on phony contracts and teams creating bogus claims of breach of contract by players because they decided they no longer want the player, for whatever reason.
When Kenji and I first started putting his business together in Japan I taught him how to be an agent and he educated me on the landscape of the Japanese market. The first thing that made it all work for us in Japan was the teams’ decent operating budgets. And now I’m sure you’re thinking, “typical agent, all about the money.” Well, my response to that is: it’s not all about the money, but it certainly matters. As a certified NBPA and FIBA agent, I had a fiduciary responsibility to my clients — which, I admit, is somewhat legal mumbo jumbo, but it is true. The real story is, I had close personal relationships with most of the players I represented and I cared about their wellbeing. So yes, money matters, and Japan has a large amount of it. Equally as important is Japan being a nice place, and the way the Japanese conduct business is generally very professional and respectful — things I value tremendously.
The benefits for a player going to Japan were clear, but there was a downside, too. At that point in time (2012), a player’s marketability would have taken a major hit outside of Japan once he had signed there. Japanese basketball was not well respected throughout the basketball community and especially within Europe, which was probably the most important market outside of the NBA for players at that time. My players and I seriously considered these negative components prior to signing contracts in Japan. We were risking players' marketability worldwide. Initially, this made for an extremely difficult decision process for myself and my players that had received offers to play there. However, the more deals Kenji and I did together, the more success we found. Gradually, I became less hesitant to advise players to accept deals in Japan — which is something I am very happy about, because we ended up having a lot of players find success there.
When we started placing players in Japan, it was not the beginning of professional basketball there — I don’t want to take too much credit. As I mentioned, Kenji spent 13 years working for the Aisin Seahorses, the powerhouse team in Japan. The team featured former UCLA standout, J.R. Henderson, who was a 2nd round pick in the 1998 NBA draft. He signed with the Aisin Seahorses in 2001 and still plays there. He is 41 years old now. In 2007, he was naturalized as a Japanese citizen and even changed his name to, J.R. Sakuragi, a Japanese name. In 2004, Yuta Tabuse became the first Japanese-born player to play in the NBA. He played in four games for the Phoenix Suns. That was after he went undrafted, played on the Dallas Mavericks’ summer league team, and was cut from the Denver Nuggets during training camp the previous year. An admirable accomplishment for Tabuse, undoubtedly.
When Kenji and I “set up shop,” we had the foresight that it was just the beginning for Japanese basketball and big things were to come in the following years — and we were right! Although I am confident in saying that the work Kenji and I did had a positive influence on the Japanese basketball market, I think it was probably more of a situation where our timing was right. Japanese basketball had a solid foundation, it just needed some nurturing. In the last five years, Japanese player salaries have increased exponentially each year, and subsequently, the talent levels have increased as well. This year there are about a dozen players in Japan that have NBA experience. The idea that a professional basketball player could make a seven-figure deal playing in Japan would have once seemed impossible, but now seems probable in the coming years.
To go along with the dramatically improved landscape of professional basketball in Japan, the country is beginning to produce some serious local talent. Yuta Watanabe spent four years at George Washington University, posting an impressive 16.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game in his senior season. Watanabe signed a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies after going undrafted in this last summer’s draft. His two-way contract will see him splitting time between the Grizzlies and their G-League affiliate, the Memphis Hustle. On October 28th of this year, Yuta made his debut with the Memphis Grizzlies, making him the second Japanese-born player to play in the NBA.
Now onto the “main event,” I would like to introduce you to Rui Hachimura. A 6’8”, Japanese “man child,” who could possibly be the key to Gonzaga winning their first national championship. A projected lottery pick, Hachimura will likely be the first Japanese-born player to be selected in the NBA draft. My personal scouting report of Hachimura is filled with a long list of good traits, which include: physical strength, defensive versatility, abilities to rebound, post up and finish around the rim, to go along with a nice shooting stroke. I also noted that he has an extremely high motor and displays terrific composure, maturity, and toughness. In my opinion, he is the perfect first Japanese player to be drafted and represent the country of Japan. Hachimura is a hard-working, humble, and reliable player — characteristics that are a direct reflection of where he comes from and what makes Japan a special place.
I look forward to watching Rui throughout this season, and I will be joining an entire nation by rooting for him throughout his career.