- The Washington Times
Monday, November 11, 2019

Few, if any, NBA mock drafts last summer correctly predicted the Washington Wizards‘ selection at No. 9 overall, but Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said the night of the draft that “we knew it was going to be” Rui Hachimura all along.

The decision is paying dividends for Washington thus far, and not just on the court. Hachimura’s status as Japan’s basketball prodigy is beneficial for business, too.

Last month, the Wizards announced their first sponsorship deal with a Japanese organization: NEC, a computer manufacturer and IT company. Now, Monumental Sports and Entertainment vice chairman Raul Fernandez and president and chief commercial officer Jim Van Stone will return to Tokyo next week and hold upwards of 20 meetings with other Japanese companies.

QUIZ: Can you match the nickname to the NBA player?

It will be their second trip to Japan in six weeks. Fernandez recounted seeing the “electricity” and passion for Hachimura firsthand the last time he visited the country.

“D.C. as everyone knows is a very international city,” Van Stone added, “and I think the opportunity for us to go over there and introduce our brand, the Washington Wizards, to the greater Japan community is very humbling.”

Hachimura is the third Japanese-born player in NBA history, the first to be drafted in the first round and the first to really capture his home country’s attention. It was front-page news in Japan when Hachimura was drafted, and again when he made his NBA debut last month.

“Obviously it’s not my job to do those sponsor things,” Hachimura said. “But as you said, basketball in Japan is getting bigger right now and a lot of people, like companies, big companies, (are) watching and want to have something with the NBA right now. It’s pretty cool to have those sponsors like that as a Wizard.”

Japan is the world’s 11th most populous country and its third largest economy, but its potential as a basketball market was largely unexplored before. Hachimura’s following puts the Wizards in an enviable position — one the Houston Rockets were in almost 20 years ago.

When the Rockets drafted Chinese center and future Hall of Famer Yao Ming first overall in 2002, they became China’s favorite team. It trickled down to Yao’s teammates: Former Rockets like Shane Battier and Luis Scola landed sponsorship deals with Chinese sneaker and apparel companies while Yao was playing.

The sport’s popularity soared and most Chinese fans rooted for the Rockets — making last month’s controversy over Houston general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong all the more awkward.

Long-term, a few seasons with Hachimura could make Japan the Wizards‘ equivalent to what the Rockets achieved in China — without the potential for messy geopolitical ramifications.

“With Washington, D.C., and (its) 190-plus embassies, I think we want to be the international team of flavor for all markets in the world,” Van Stone said. “But I think Japan, certainly with Rui, is going to be near and dear to our heart.”

Hachimura himself has several sponsorship deals already, including for Casio G-SHOCK watches, Nissin Cup Noodles and the “NBA 2K” video game franchise. His shoe deal with Jordan Brand made him the first Japanese athlete to sign with that company.

At 21, Hachimura is used to the attention that has followed him since high school and throughout college, even if he isn’t enthused by it.

“I wouldn’t say (I’m) comfortable. I got nothing to do with it, I can’t control it,” Hachimura said. “It’s good for the team, you know, the Wizards and the community and stuff. Good for Japan, the basketball.”

He also knows he can leverage his platform. Hachimura’s mother is Japanese and his father is from the African country of Benin, and the rookie said it would be great if children, particularly mixed-race children in Japan, looked up to him and decided to pick up basketball.

The maturity Hachimura shows for someone his age has stood out to coach Scott Brooks and teammates.

“I love how he is so respected at such an early part of his career,” Brooks said. “A lot of times rookies don’t get the immediate respect because let’s face it, they’ve been a star for wherever they’ve played at and a lot of times they don’t think it’s going to be as hard to be an NBA player. But he came in with great respect and I think the players see his work ethic and see his ability or his eagerness to want to get better and grow with our group.”

Business ties in Japan is only one piece of the Wizards‘ strategy. They hired a bilingual digital correspondent and launched a Japanese-language team site, Twitter feed and podcast to cater to their new fans in the country. That push has garnered 28 million digital “impressions” so far, Van Stone said.

“It’s almost been like a startup,” Fernandez said. “In six weeks you’ve launched something new, and you can see through the engagement how popular, how exciting, how authentic it is. So we’re excited to build on top of that.”

They credit Hachimura’s “authentic” following, which has been building since he played in high school in Japan and came to the U.S. to play collegiately at Gonzaga.

Fernandez compared it to how Alex Ovechkin’s arrival to the Capitals helped invigorate and grow the hockey fan base in Washington.

“When people can identify, when they can follow a journey, when they can be part of that journey, that’s when I think it gets viral,” Fernandez said. “And that’s what we’ve got with Rui Hachimura here.”

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