John Blanchette: Japanese media devour every scrap from Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura

Japanese TV media shoot video of Rui Hachimura in a scripted study session on campus with fellow Gonzaga basketball teammates Joel Ayayi, and Killian Tillie, Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
After interviews, Japanese TV media shoot video of Gonzaga basketball player Rui Hachimura walking around campus, Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Japanese TV media shoot video of Rui Hachimura eating lunch on campus with fellow Gonzaga basketball teammates Joel Ayayi, in back, and Killian Tillie, Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The scrapbook photos that mark the timeline of Gonzaga basketball are indelible.

The freeze-frame of Casey Calvary’s tip-in. Adam Morrison’s KeyArena bank shot, called or not. Demetri Goodson, Jeremy Pargo and Mark Few, arms around each other, stopping to watch a TV replay of Goodson’s game-saving layup in the bowels of the Rose Garden. Tent City bivouacking in another blizzard.

Add another snap from Tuesday, noonish:

Rui Hachimura eating lunch with six television minicams hovering at his table, sound technicians telescoping microphones over his rapidly emptying plate.

“Who would have thought?” Bulldogs assistant coach Tommy Lloyd asked. “And in May.”

And remember, it was six weeks ago that the Zags’ forward announced he wasn’t taking his megawatt game to the NBA.

But maybe that only magnifies the mystery.

So on Tuesday, crews from Japan’s six national television channels – 20 people in all – descended on McCarthey Athletic Center to explore Ruiworld in advance of his return home in a week or so to begin workouts with Japan’s national team as it tries to stay alive in qualifying for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

This was the brainchild of Lloyd and Kenta Kawashima, the Japan Basketball Association’s international affairs manager. Call it one-stop shopping, sort of like binge-watching HSN.

There was a tour of GU’s basketball compound, where the crews videoed Rui’s altogether too-tidy locker – sports information director Barrett Henderson had swooped in earlier to scoop up all the clothes spilling out of it. Alas, Hachimura’s jersey was nowhere to be found, so viewers in Japan will have to reconcile any highlights showing No. 21 with the generic No. 53 in his stall.

There was a staged-for-TV “study session” in the new Volkar Center with Rui, teammates Killian Tillie and Joel Ayayi and counselor Emma Moon, which had to be amusing to a handful of Zags athletes who were there actually, you know, studying.

There was that lunch, where Tillie revealed he’s enjoyed his roommate turning him on to sushi and ramen and other Japanese eats.

“He makes those for you?” a reporter asked.

“Well, not for me,” Tillie said. “For him.”

There was a panel Q-and-A with Hachimura, Few and Lloyd, in which the head coach filled a pause with a question of his own.

“How’s his Japanese?” Few asked the visitors. “Not good? Too much American slang in there now? I was worried about that.”

And then they put Rui through the car wash – more than two hours of one-on-one sit-downs or stand-ups with NHK, Nippon TV, TV Asahi, TV Tokyo, Fuji TV and the Tokyo Broadcasting System. The only time he looked more spent was after Lloyd called a halt to the players’ workout that ended the day at 6 p.m.

Still, if Rui didn’t break the full-court press Tuesday, it didn’t break him, either.

“I’m getting kind of used to the attention,” he allowed.

He’d better get used to more. Just the other day, the JBA ran a full-page ad in Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily newspaper, to tout the World Cup games with Hachimura’s picture underneath the declaration “HOPE is coming back.”

At least they passed on “Savior of Japanese Basketball!”

“I kind of wish other people would have some insight into this – the kind of pressure this kid is under,” Few said. “It’s a thing he likes to avoid over here and not deal with, but it’s the reality.”

The Japanese team is currently fourth in its four-team World Cup pool, with games ahead against Australia and Chinese Taipei, which it needs to lose against the Philippines just to stay alive. Hachimura didn’t play in those games; his return “brings a completely different boost to the national team,” Kawashima said.

“I want to help them,” Hachimura said. “And it’s not only about these games, but I’m thinking about the 2020 Olympics, too. That’s why I want to play this time.”

And yet he doesn’t want to rock the boat, either – one of the reasons Lloyd and Kawashima were able to arm-twist him into this all-day media blitz.

“Part of our deal is that when he goes back, he won’t have to be as available,” Lloyd said. “He didn’t want all media surrounding him with all the other players there.”

Hachimura’s play in helping Gonzaga to the NCAA Sweet 16 last year certainly enhanced his profile, and now the folks back home are downright antsy to have their own NBA player.

“It was always,” Kawashima said, “like the dream of dreams.”

Michi Murayama, a Seattle-based freelancer who was working for NHK on Tuesday, sees those expectations “get higher and higher, and I feel sorry for people like him sometimes,” she said. “I’ve been following Ichiro since 2001 and I can see how weird it is to live with that pressure, how unnatural it is.

“But if nobody cares, that’s not good, either.”

Care? On Tuesday, they cared – right down to the last bite at lunch.