The Japanese Connection
In 2012, I received a phone call from an old friend, Kenjiro "Kenji" Iwano. During that call, Kenji expressed 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 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 over a handful of players who became key contributors at NCAA Division I programs. Denmark Reid and Ed "Booger" Smith were the team's top players that year. As a high school senior, Denmark was named "Mr. Basketball" in Oregon. He became the leading scorer at New Mexico State after two years at Arizona Western. Booger Smith was a playground legend from Brooklyn, New York, featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and in the movie "Soul in the Hole." That team was really talented. 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 he was far outmatched and did not belong on the floor with that team. Subsequently, my dad pulled Kenji from the floor and sat with him. He told him he would not be able to play on his team, but he would create a manager position.
Although visibly disappointed, Kenji agreed.
After several years of being a manager at Arizona Western, Kenji learned English. Then, he went on to earn a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State University. He served as the basketball team's manager and earned his college degree there. Kenji had no intention of giving up basketball once his schooling was complete. He worked in many roles for the top professional team in Japan, the Aisin Seahorses, for 13 years.
In 2012, Kenji and I set up his agency business in Japan. We co-represented many players and coaches there and executed over 100 contracts within five years. Today, I am no longer working as an agent. Still, Kenji remains an active agent, establishing himself as one of the most influential figures in 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 agree. Before I partnered with Kenji, most of my international business 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 who has spent much time doing business within European basketball will likely have many stories. Issues with salaries being paid on time, or at all, is the most common narrative. Other problems I have 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 wanted the player for whatever reason.
When Kenji and I 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 teams in Japan had decent operating budgets, which made it easy to conduct business right off the bat. And now I'm sure you're thinking, "Typical agent, all about the money." Well, my response is that 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. I admit that is somewhat legal mumbo jumbo, but it is true. The real story is that I had close personal relationships with most of the players I represented and cared about their wellbeing. So yes, money matters and the Japanese market had it. Equally as important, though, is that Japan is a nice place, and the way they 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. In 2012, a player's marketability would have taken a significant hit outside Japan once he signed there. Japanese basketball was not well respected throughout the basketball community, especially in Europe, which was probably the most important market outside of the NBA for players back then. My players and I seriously considered these negative components before signing contracts in Japan. We were risking players' marketability worldwide. Initially, this made a complicated decision for my players and me, who 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 I am pleased about because we ended up having many players succeed 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, 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. It was 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 would 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 yearly. Subsequently, the talent levels have increased as well. This year, about a dozen players in Japan 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.
In addition to the improved landscape of professional basketball in Japan, the country is beginning to produce its own talent. Yuta Watanabe spent four years at George Washington University, posting 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 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 debuted with the Memphis Grizzlies, making him the second Japanese-born player to play in the NBA.
Now, 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 scouting report of Hachimura is filled with many good traits, including physical strength, defensive versatility, abilities to rebound, post up, and finish around the rim, and a nice shooting stroke. I also noted that he has a 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 hard-working and reliable, reflecting where he comes from and what makes Japan a special place.