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Nakagawa’s move to Gonzaga has translated well for him and Hachimura

UPDATED: Sun., March 5, 2017, 10:42 p.m.

Ken Nakagawa, a master’s student at Gonzaga, has served as a translator for Japanese player Rui Hachimura. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Ken Nakagawa, a master’s student at Gonzaga, has served as a translator for Japanese player Rui Hachimura. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

As Gonzaga gets ready to step out on the Orleans Arena floor on Monday to take on Santa Clara in the West Coast Conference semifinal, there will be one Zag watching from his home in Spokane.

Well, an off-court Zag.

Ken Nakagawa, who shoots and compiles film of practices and games for the Zags and their coaches, didn’t get to exchange the Spokane cold for a few days in the desert sun to watch top-seeded Gonzaga fight for a WCC title.

But Nakagawa’s OK, with that – he’ll be courtside at the Orleans Arena next year.

Nakagawa, who couldn’t travel with the Zags to Las Vegas this year because of limited space, became one of the Zags’ newest staff members at the beginning of the school year when he transferred from Long Beach State to start a master’s program in organizational leadership at Gonzaga. Nakagawa said he’s hoping the degree will help him get a spot on the coaching staff of a Division I basketball team – and maybe help him earn a head coach hat one day.

“That’s the goal right now,” Nakagawa said. “I’m still a long ways from that. I still have lots to work on.”

For now, he’s content with working under some of the college basketball greats, including the winningest coach in the history of the WCC. And Gonzaga head coach Mark Few was more than happy to adopt Nakagawa into the Zags family this year, especially since Nakagawa could assist him in knocking down a language barrier.

Particularly, the barrier between Few and newcomer Rui Hachimura.

Hachimura moved from his home in Japan to join the Zags in Spokane at the start of the school year and the 6-foot-8 freshman forward had trouble communicating with the coaches and players during practice.

Gonzaga has signed countless international players like Hachimura over the years who are not always well-versed in the English language. Usually, those student-athletes from other countries have assistance in the classroom, but that resource is not normally available on the court.

Until this year. Nakagawa, who is fluent in Japanese, was able to become an unofficial translator for Hachimura, a role that Nakagawa didn’t expect when he switched teams last year.

Nakagawa worked as a student manager and then as a graduate assistant to Long Beach State head coach and former Gonzaga head coach Dan Monson. Working under Monson provided an extra opportunity for Nakagawa – the chance to work under Few inside the Kennel.

Few worked with Monson as an assistant coach for nine years and then took over as head coach in 1999 when Monson left to coach at Minnesota.

Few and Monson have remained friends, a relationship Nakagawa thought could eventually help him move north.

“Looking ahead, I thought, if I just did everything the coaches wanted me to do at Long Beach, I could maybe, you know, get a spot here (and) ask Coach Monson for a recommendation,” Nakagawa said.

So in January 2016, Nakagawa asked Monson to talk to Few about possibly getting a spot on the Zags staff the following school year.

“He (Monson) was all for it,” Nakagawa said.

And so was Few.

“He’s a really, really hard worker. He’s extremely sensitive to just trying to help out in any way that he can,” Few said.

And, of course, “It’s been nice having him here for Rui.”

Since the start of the season, Nakagawa said Hachimura’s English has improved dramatically. As the season continued, Hachimura needed Nakagawa less and less as a translator, but the two still enjoy hanging around each other outside the Kennel and talking as friends. Just not in Japanese anymore.

“We kind of made a deal that we wouldn’t speak Japanese together,” Nakagawa said. “That was his thing, he came up to me and asked me to do that for him.”

That way, Hachimura could continuously practice his English.

Now at the end of the season, Nakagawa said Hachimura can understand most of what is said to him and can speak a decent amount of English.

Of course, becoming fluent in the language will take much more time than one basketball season in Spokane, but Nakagawa plans to stay close by if the freshman big man needs him. Nakagawa said he hopes to stay on the Gonzaga staff long after he graduates in 2018.

“I’ve always wanted to come here,” Nakagawa said. “This program … shapes you to become a better communicator and leader.”

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