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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

For Rui Hachimura, a hoops star in two very different countries, time away is a delicate dance

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 23, 2022

By Ava Wallace Washington Post

On the night of his NBA return, former Gonzaga star Rui Hachimura shared little about what kept him away for so long.

Was he feeling better? He said he felt fine after a much-needed break from the unrelenting, 10-year churn of a basketball career. Did he learn anything about himself? Yes, actually, he learned he really loves basketball. Did he do anything while he was gone? He watched his own highlights, which helped remind him how much he loved the game.

Hachimura’s friendly reticence was nothing new. The Washington Wizards’ Japanese-born forward has always been private, and his five-month break from basketball was defined publicly by the silence surrounding it. It was not a physical issue that spurred Hachimura’s time off, but even since he returned, only teammate Kyle Kuzma has used the words “mental health” to address Hachimura’s situation.

Rui Hachimura finally felt ready to return. Now what?

During Hachimura’s layoff, the Wizards, his agents and Hachimura himself uttered hardly a word aside from tight-lipped updates from Washington about how he was progressing. There were almost no news leaks about his whereabouts or circumstances for five months, which in the NBA ecosystem is practically unheard of. Nor were there any of the usual things sports audiences are growing accustomed to as mental health becomes a dominant issue of the time: no essay in the Players’ Tribune, no television sit-down, no Instagram announcement like Hachimura’s countrywoman Naomi Osaka when she pulled out of the French Open last year.

Not every athlete is as forthcoming as Kevin Love or Simone Biles when it comes to his or her well-being, but in Hachimura’s case, cultural considerations may have influenced his decision to stay quiet.

Hachimura the basketball player has a straightforward job. Hachimura the public figure must consider how he comes across in both the United States, where he enjoys the usual amount of attention that might come with a former first-round draft pick, and Japan, where his following is so rabid and his fame so big that his face was plastered on a special-edition Cup Noodles during the Tokyo Olympics, during which he also served as a flag bearer for Japan.

“When you have a player known in multiple countries, that it’s not a, and I must be careful how I say this, it’s not a schizophrenia, but it’s an awareness that the cultures are different,” said Rick Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University with deep experience in international sports business. “Japan is not the United States, and how things are perceived or accepted or viewed are different in different countries.”

Mental health is highly stigmatized in Japan, where athletes in particular are meant to be pictures of stoicism. It is not the norm to speak publicly about personal issues, and experts say there is a widespread lack of mental health resources.

Perfection is the goal in Japanese society, a cultural aspect Masami Horikawa, a sports psychology researcher at Kwansei Gakuin University, said makes it difficult for athletes to come forward when they are struggling. Hachimura faces the added pressure of dealing with online backlash and discrimination because he is biracial and does not fit the traditionally strict definition of a pure Japanese person.

“Not all the pressure is bad, but as a culture, Japanese people expect that individuals can accomplish everything, and perfectionism is seen as a beauty,” Horikawa told The Post in July during an interview on athlete mental health during the Olympics. “So as a culture, we expect and praise individuals who are able to succeed all on their own without any help.”

Social pressure goes hand in hand with business interests when it comes to managing an athlete’s time off. Hachimura’s historic selection in the draft – he was the first Japanese player ever picked in the first round – and his ability to reach a global audience made him extraordinarily marketable immediately upon joining the Wizards. His partnerships include Jordan Brand, Japanese tech and electronic behemoth NEC, Nissin Foods and Casio, to name a scant few. Forbes estimated in 2019 that as a rookie, Hachimura was on track to earn $10 million in endorsement deals.

When an athlete takes time off, advertising campaigns roll on, and corporate partners are likely eager to know when an athlete will be ready to resume playing. Even when they may not know themselves.

“That adds to the pressure and the anxiety of, not only am I potentially letting my country down, but I’m letting my sponsors down, I’m letting my teammates down – and yet I don’t want to believe that I’m letting anyone down,” Burton said. “I’ve got to take care of myself first. And yet I know that my agent, my general manager, my sponsors, my coach, everyone’s calling and saying: ‘Hey, are you feeling better? Are you ready to play?’

“At what point do you have the power in your own life, in your own career to say, ‘Despite the challenges, despite the pressures, despite the media coverage, I am going to step away for a while because this is not going to be good for me.’”

All the disparate factors percolate in what Burton calls a “cultural stew” of stress for famous athletes who represent multiple countries – for which, in the public relations and sports marketing world, there is no set playbook on how to operate.

Osaka, who took a highly publicized mental health break in 2021, may be the closest comparison to Hachimura’s situation, but she was raised in the United States and came of age as a public figure as the country dramatically shifted its attitudes toward mental health and athlete well-being. Osaka has been open about her struggles, updating fans on social media and releasing a Netflix documentary in the midst of taking time away from tennis.

Hachimura took the opposite approach, and the Wizards went along. While it was the forward’s decision when to return, Coach Wes Unseld Jr. said the team was in “lockstep” with his representation throughout his time away and mapped out a timetable for his return weeks before Hachimura stepped on court.

“Obviously COVID set him back a bit, but there were no real surprises. It was more just, when he’s ready,” Unseld said. “We earmarked a certain date, and they aligned, and it worked out well.”

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