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Gonzaga Basketball

Amid NCAA run, Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura reflects on importance of Ichiro Suzuki to home country of Japan

Gonzaga  forward Rui Hachimura  fields questions from the media on Friday  at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

SALT LAKE CITY – It’s difficult to picture now: Rui Hachimura, the elementary school pitcher/catcher who was more fascinated with rubber baseballs and wooden bats than he was with steel rims and twine nets.

Basketball is the sport that has driven Hachimura’s celebrity – both at the small Jesuit school in Spokane he’s representing this week in the NCAA Tournament and in his home country of Japan, where a fair majority of the 126.8 million residents who consider themselves sports fans are more than familiar with the Gonzaga forward and projected high NBA draft pick.

But up until the age of 12, he estimates, Hachimura was only lukewarm about the sport that will earn him millions – be it in a few months or after one more go with the Zags.

Not atypical of a young Japanese boy in the early 2000s, he was fixated on baseball, especially during a peak period for the nation’s sporting icon – a soft-spoken outfielder who played for the Seattle Mariners.

The same day Hachimura and Gonzaga were opening their 2019 tournament against Fairleigh Dickinson in Salt Lake City, Ichiro Suzuki was putting on the Mariners uniform for the last time – fittingly, in front of close to 50,000 of his countrymen and women at the Tokyo Dome.

“I really like him as a baseball player, but also he’s a personality,” Hachimura said. “He’s really humble. … Really, I think he did everything for baseball since he was a kid. He really loved baseball, and even though it’s different sports, I really respect (him).

Hachimura said he grew bored with baseball by the time he left elementary school – about the same time he picked up a basketball – but still followed Ichiro’s storied career in Seattle.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” he said, “and I watched him.”

It was approximately 3:30 a.m. Mountain time Thursday when Seattle’s Yusei Kikuchi – another national hero in Japan – threw the first pitch in Tokyo. While Hachimura didn’t break any team curfews or hinder his sleep pattern to watch it live, as soon as he woke up in Salt Lake City, the Gonzaga junior powered on his cellphone and scrolled through social media videos highlighting Ichiro’s swan song.

The 45-year-old grounded out in the eighth inning and was taken out of the game shortly thereafter, to a rousing, emotional ovation from the sellout crowd.

“I heard it was a lot of people and I heard a lot of media – even in his media conference, he was talked about,” Hachimura said. “It was a lot of media, so I think a lot of people had attention for him.

“I think it was a great moment for us (and) Japanese sports history.”

Hachimura’s fans and followers think the Bulldogs’ All-American forward will be responsible for many of the country’s future athletic milestones. If he elects to forgo his final year of college eligibility, Hachimura should hear his name called in June’s NBA Draft. In a recent mock draft published by The Athletic, Hachimura was projected to go 10th overall.

“I think it’s going to be really big for me, but also my country,” Hachimura said nearly 24 hours before the Bulldogs’ second-round matchup with Baylor. “We never had, like, a real NBA player, so I think if I make it, it’s going to be a big deal.”

When the Japanese national team selects its roster for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, Hachimura’s name will of course be included. He was beaming when asked about the opportunity to wear his country’s flag.

“I’m so excited about it,” Hachimura said. “… It has been my goal and it’s getting closer, and I’m so excited about playing for my country.”

Throngs of Japanese reporters have been trailing Hachimura this season. Between 20 to 30 descended on Las Vegas to cover Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament. Hachimura’s media following hasn’t diminished in the NCAA Tournament, where the junior forward has generally held court with Japanese reporters for 10 to 20 minutes before answering questions in English for another 10.

The NCAA Tournament presented Hachimura with a unique experience earlier this week. On Wednesday, he met Wataru “Wat” Misaka, a 95-year-old who was the first player of Asian descent and first nonwhite player in the NBA, then called the Basketball Association of America.

“I heard about him when I came (to America),” Hachimura said. “We actually don’t talk about him in Japan, but it was really cool to see him. He told me he was really happy for me. I don’t think he speaks Japanese, but he was really happy for me and I was happy, too.”