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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Postponement puts former Gonzaga great Rui Hachimura’s Olympics dreams on hold

UPDATED: Tue., March 24, 2020

Rui Hachimura’s relatively short basketball career has been packed with ground-breaking achievements.

Hachimura is a superstar and the face of basketball’s rising popularity in his native Japan. Roughly a year ago, the former Gonzaga standout was in a commercial promoting the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. He was set to lead Japan’s team at the Games in four months.

That historic moment for Hachimura and Japan has been put on hold.

The Japanese government and International Olympic Committee announced Tuesday the postponement of the Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games to no later than summer 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision wasn’t a surprise. U.S. swimming, gymnastics and track and field recently urged the IOC to postpone the Games. Olympic committees for Canada and Australia announced they wouldn’t send their athletes to Tokyo because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Japan was granted host nation qualification for the Olympics’ 12-team basketball tournament. Seven other countries, including the U.S., had qualified. Four berths were to be determined at upcoming qualifying tournaments.

Hachimura didn’t get involved in basketball until a middle school friend asked him to try out for the team. Okuda Junior High coach Joji Sakamoto saw something right away in Hachimura, the son of a Japanese mother and Beninese father.

“He gave me tapes of NBA and NCAA games of different players,” Hachimura told The Spokesman-Review during his senior season. “My coach started to say I was going to play in the NBA. I got more serious about it.”

Hachimura arrived at Gonzaga with obvious physical tools but largely untested against high-level competition. The 6-foot-8 forward barely spoke English.

He played limited minutes on the 2017 team that lost to North Carolina in the national championship. He became a key player as a sophomore and a star as a junior. Japanese media chronicled nearly all of his games over his last two seasons.

Hachimura became the first Japanese-born player taken in the first round of the NBA draft when Washington selected him with the ninth overall pick. He’s started 41 games as a rookie, averaging 13.4 points and 6.0 rebounds. He played in the Rising Stars contest at All-Star weekend.

The Wizards, realizing Hachimura’s enormous popularity in Japan, hired bilingual journalist Zac Ikuma to produce content in English and Japanese for the team’s website.

Hachimura, 22, signed his first endorsement deal with Japanese food company Nissin prior to the NBA draft. He’s landed several endorsement contracts with Japanese companies in addition to one with Jordan Brand.

Japan has had some success at international tournaments with Hachimura, former Nevada star Nick Fazekas and Yuta Watanabe, who has split time between the Memphis Grizzlies and the organization’s G League team. Fazekas is a naturalized Japanese citizen.

Japan hasn’t competed in the Olympics since the 1976 Games in Montreal. Japan has played in six Olympics, with its highest finish 10th in 1956 and 1964.

Other Zags potentially impacted by the postponement include Kelly Olynyk (Canada) and Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania). Canada and Olynyk, who plays for the Miami Heat, were scheduled to host a four-team qualifying tournament in June. Ex-Zags Kyle Wiltjer and Kevin Pangos played for Canada during some of the qualification rounds.

Lithuania and Sabonis, an All-Star with the Indiana Pacers, also faced a qualifying tournament.

Australia had earned a spot in field. Former Washington State Cougar Aron Baynes, now with the Phoenix Suns, has played on the Boomers’ past two Olympic teams.

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