Wizards

Hachimura has chance to shine brightly at Olympics

Wizards

If you want to know just how big Rui Hachimura has become in Japan, look at his latest endorsement deal with Nissin which just recently debuted a Himi curry-flavored cup of noodles with Hachimura's face on the packaging. He has his own flavor, inspired by the Toyama region where he's from, and it's curry.

According to Wizards Japan correspondent Zac Ikuma, this is bigger than the average endorsement.

"To get on a cup of ramen is a pretty big deal in Japan. It's not like other athletes get on it. It's not like people even get their faces on there," he said.

"But for Rui to get his face on there with also Himi is the Toyama-style curry ramen. It's not just Japanese curry ramen. Curry ramen is popular here. But it's a special type of curry ramen, which is from Rui's region in Japan. Even in that sense, I mean, everybody is just behind him. To have Rui's mug on a cup of noodles is just really funny and everyone is buzzing about that, too."

The cup of noodles debut came just days before the Tokyo Olympics where Hachimura is set to take center stage. He was one of the flag bearers for the host country during Friday's opening ceremony and is expected to be the star of their men's basketball team. Japan has qualified for the Olympics before, but has never medaled in the sport.

 

Japanese fans have hope that could change this year: After Japan upset France in their exhibition schedule, followers of the team are dreaming big. Much of it has to do with Hachimura, who reporters from Japan say is now a top-3 athlete in the country in terms of popularity, right up there with Shohei Ohtani of Major League Baseball and Naomi Osaka in tennis.

Ohtani is the king right now, as he's lighting up baseball as a pitcher and home run-hitting slugger for the Angels. Osaka is the highest-paid female athlete in the world, the majority of it from endorsements. But Hachimura is breaking new ground as a basketball player and the first-ever first-round NBA draft pick from Japan.

"This is the first time we have entered the Olympics with this high of hopes for a player," Tsuyoshi Toya, a producer for Tokyo Broadcasting System, said. 

"First of all, you have to understand not popular basketball is in Japan. It's not as popular as baseball is or soccer... It's getting much bigger. It's getting close to baseball right now. Everybody wants to know what's going on."

Toya said Hachimura being drafted in 2019, ninth overall by the Wizards, changed everything. Before that, the sport of basketball first began gaining popularity in Japan, he says. He credited an anime comic called 'Slam Dunk,' a manga series released in the early 1990s.

Hachimura, along with Yuta Watanabe of the Toronto Raptors, could provide a similar watershed moment for the sport in Japan.

"['Slam Dunk'] was the beginning of people kind of noticing basketball. But right now it's getting bigger and everything is much bigger than it was a couple years ago in Japan," Toya said.

That would especially be the case if they made some noise in the Olympic tournament. Ikuma called the win over France a "huge upset" for Japan of historic nature. He believes that interest will go up exponentially if they prove themselves worthy competitors in their early games against teams like Spain (July 26) and Slovenia (July 29).

But already, in large part due to Hachimura's success with the Wizards, the dynamic has shifted.

"If you're looking at TV ratings as proof to show how popular Rui is, and this was never the case before, but the other day the Japanese pro baseball NPB All-Star game and Rui's first game for Team Japan in two years happened on the same night," Ikuma explained. 

"Baseball, which is king in Japan, tops in Japan, they got a 9% rating and Rui's first game with Team Japan got an 8.3%. So, we're looking at pretty much almost a tie. Keep in mind, basketball is not a top-5 sport in Japan, so that just shows you how popular basketball is becoming thanks to Rui."

Hachimura figures to be the top scoring option for Japan, while Watanabe will get plenty of shots plus also be relied heavily upon for his defense. They will give Japan two legitimate NBA players, while in previous international competitions their top players have been pros from lower leagues.

 

"In Japan, he is basketball. Yuta is baskeball," Toya said. "It's Rui and Yuta, those two, giving exposure. We haven't had that [many] real basketball players."

Hachimura, in particular, is going to be so important to Japan's chances that Ikuma believes he could play some point guard. Hachimura usually plays forward for the Wizards and is most likely to play small-ball center for Japan, Ikuma said. But given he's their most gifted offensive player, they may choose to run their offense entirely through him as a point-forward, which is something the Wizards have never really tried with Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and other playmakers on hand.

If Hachimura does assume that role, it could form an interesting contrast in their second game, against Slovenia. The best Slovenian player is All-NBA superstar Luka Doncic, who at 6-foot-8, exactly Hachimura's size, essentially plays point guard in the NBA.

Either way, Hachimura and Doncic should make for must-see television when they square off on July 29 in Tokyo.

"I'm sure there will be times where matches up with Luka. I know that they formed a really good tandem in the Rising Stars, the 2019-20 Rising Stars game when Rui got a really nice alley-oop pass, it was almost a half-court alley-oop pass from Luka. This time, they are going to face against each other, that's going to be really exciting," Ikuma said.

Ohtani may be the most popular athlete in Japan, where baseball is the top sport, but he isn't in the Olympics. Osaka and Hachimura will be among the biggest stars, but the basketball team entering new territory could have a profound effect on the growth of the sport, Ikuma believes.

"If [Japan wins] and that's on national TV, and let's say there are eight or 12-year-old kids watching that, [they might] say 'oh man, I want to become a basketball player.' For once, they're not watching baseball, glued to the TV saying 'I want to become a baseball player,'" Ikuma said. "They might be saying 'I want to be like Rui.'"