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THE RISE OF ASIA: NBA EDITION

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THE RISE OF ASIA: NBA EDITION
February 6, 20XX
By Fred Benderson

 

“This guy can’t understand English,” says Kagami Taiga, whose head is a shock of red hair that’s uncommon even in these areas. He jerks a thumb at the man who’s seated next to him and looking a little surly. “Feel free to direct any questions at me.”

I’ve been waiting for Kagami and his teammate, Aomine Daiki, for about half an hour now, tucked away in a corner of a diner and reviewing the questions that I’ve prepared for them. They arrive some ten minutes ahead of schedule, which catches me off guard just as I’m penning down some final remarks. I fumble a little through my self-introduction and direct the waitress to our table while I ready my voice recorder. If they’ve noticed any stumbling on my part, they don’t show it, choosing to pay more attention to the menu instead.

The two of them are in town this week to play the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, having already spent a good half of a year with the Los Angeles Clippers. It seems like it was just yesterday, however, that they were both drafted from the Japanese bj league, which stirred up some controversy among fans and pundits alike. In a league that has been seeing greater representation from foreign players in recent years (they make up around twenty percent of the league’s active players), the Asian NBA professional is still a rarity. After all, the only Japanese national to have played so illustratively in the NBA and its associated leagues is Tabuse Yuta, back in the mid 2000’s. Players from Japan’s East Asian cousins, China and South Korea, are also uncommon in the NBA, even though the likes of Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian have achieved considerable fame. So not just one, but two Japanese players? The Clippers’ scouts had better be right on their money.

And right they were. Or at least, they have been so far. Kagami and Aomine, both 24, have been great additions to the solid team that the Clippers have been building for the past few years. Just last week, Aomine scored a stunning 29 points alone against the Philadelphia 76ers, his personal best in the NBA so far. And Kagami’s always been noted for his dunks, but you could hear the sound of Marv Albert’s jaw hitting the floor during that match against the New York Knicks. If you watched the game, you’ll know which killer shot I’m talking about. The Clippers came very close to clinching their first championship last year, losing 2-4 to the Miami Heat in their best Playoffs yet, but I feel like Kagami and Aomine could help bring them that trophy in the next two years or so, if they do stay for that long.

Am I being overly optimistic? We’ll see. In the meantime, let’s find out more about them.




“So, what did you guys get?” I ask as soon as the waitress leaves with their order.

“Uh, burgers,” Kagami says. “Milkshakes, and some fried chicken. Atlanta’s famous for fried chicken, right?”

He would know. Kagami spent seven years of his childhood in America before returning to Japan to enrol in high school. It might have seemed like a short time, but it was enough for him to have picked up basketball on the street courts of Los Angeles and liked it enough to have continued playing when he went back home, all the way till now. When he opens his mouth to speak, he does so with an unmistakeable Californian, surfer dude-type accent. The only son of an options trader and a personnel manager, Kagami is no stranger to hopping between cities due to his parents’ responsibilities at work, but now, he’s doing it for himself.

“It’s definitely great to be back,” he says when I ask him how he feels about getting to play with a team that’s located where he used to live as a kid. “On one hand, I don’t think anyone can really say anything bad about getting to play in the NBA, wherever the team is located. On the other hand, it’s great that I’m back here again. It brings back a lot of memories. Kind of like a really happy coincidence. I got to see all the people with whom I used to play basketball. We’ve been playing in my free time.”

I try to get him to talk about his experience with the Clippers so far. He downs half his glass of water in a large gulp and makes a face.

“Truthfully, it’s still taking a little getting used to,” he comments finally. “Back in Japan we both used to play power forward all the time, but here, you kind of get the sense that because we’re not as tall, not as large, people don’t think we’re as effective offensively, so we’ve had to switch it up a bit by combining with other positions, like playing a bit of small forward or somewhere in between, or to make some changes to our game.”

“And you’re not starting all the time like you used to back home.”

“Yeah, it can get a little frustrating,” he replies, laughing. “But we’re adapting, because we feel like this is the right position for us and we’re gonna stick with it. Right now we’re just focusing on trying to score as much, on trying to play as well as we can. I just want to get right into the game all the time, y’know? Get into the game as fast as I can. But it’s been great. It’s been a real eye-opening experience.”

I want to tell Kagami that he’s got little cause for concern, and I do. After all, this is the guy who’s averaging 16.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Between him and Aomine, they’re getting 28.7 minutes per game per player, starting 61.2% of the time. Not bad at all for a couple of players who’ve only been playing six months or so in a league that they’re still adapting to. Besides, they’re not necessarily disadvantaged in playing power forward in the NBA, although players in this position have traditionally been larger and stronger. Gameplay has gotten increasingly fast in recent years, and smaller-sized players and small forwards have excelled in combining speed and agility with the attributes required of a conventional power forward. Aomine does especially well in this regard. (More on this later.)

If you’ve been paying attention to Kagami at all for the past few months, you might know that his weapon is the dunk, or at least, you might think so, given how he’s brutally slammed his way into scoring sixteen points each game. Commentators all talk about the strength of his dunk, but few notice one thing – that he consistently jumps higher and for longer than anyone else who tries to stop him, which completely makes up for whatever he lacks in height. This is what fuels his ability to dunk so well and so often, as well as what primes him for getting rebounds.

“Your jumping ability is amazing,” I say, and he scratches the back of his neck, looking almost embarrassed. “I always feel like you’re floating instead of jumping when you dunk. You always do this thing where you kind of push yourself up with your palm using the rim of the basket – like dunking from above instead of from below. What’s up with that? Have you always been able to do that?”

“Real crazy story,” he begins, “but there was this one time in high school when my coach told me to go running on the beach barefoot for three whole days. So yeah, I did it, but I was kind of miffed because it was a training camp and I missed all the matches because I was doing that instead, just running back and forth on the beach like a huge idiot.

“At the end of the three days she told me to try jumping. ‘Not on your normal jumping foot,’ she said, ‘the other one.’ And I tried it. I knocked an entire basketball post over. I mean, I was always good at jumping high, but that was when I found out I could do so much better. Come to think of it –” here he pauses, shooting a sudden, unfathomable glance at Aomine, who looks back questioningly – “yeah, that was how I found out. My coach found out. When I was in high school.”

“You looked at him,” I point out. “He got something to do with it?”

“Maybe,” Kagami says, shrugging. “A little. It’s a long story.”

“So you’ve known each other since high school?”

“Yeah. But we only started playing together in the bj league.”

It is perhaps here that I need to state that Kagami and Aomine were already teammates at the Tokyo Cinq Rêves in the bj league before they joined the NBA. Long before audiences were asking for more of their ruthless, efficient partnership in front of the net (which I personally feel that we’re not getting enough of), they were both already fixture regulars at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, the home of the Cinq Rêves. You’d think that they would have alternated between the positions of small forward and power forward from time to time, given conventional wisdom, but Kagami tells me that they both stuck with playing power forward, even then. It explains why they’re hell-bent on playing the same positions now, why they’re almost unstoppable when they’re both on court, and why the Cinq Rêves ended up league champions for the last two years in a row with games to spare. It’s not surprising, therefore, to learn that they’ve known each other for a while, but it is surprising to learn that the extent of their relationship goes such a long way back.

Before I get an opportunity to grill him about that, the food arrives. Kagami’s eyes grow as wide as saucers. He’s sizing up the burgers as if they’re pinups in Playboy magazine. I decide to let him indulge in this gastronomic moment that’s obviously very important to him, at least for the time being.

“Wow,” he remarks, looking genuinely excited for the first time since this interview began. “That’s a burger if I’ve ever seen one.”




Aomine Daiki is mercurial. That is the only word that I can think of that most accurately describes how he plays. Words just don’t do his play style justice. In comparison to Kagami, who is evidently excellent at picking up cues from his teammates – and comparisons here are bound to be inevitable – he seems to be the type of player who has an almost wholly intuitive approach to the game, the kind who seems to act even before anyone else has processed what is going on. I’ve had colleagues interrupt me when I’m reviewing a match and asking, “Who’s that?” He’s the perfect package of feral and swift.

I want to say that Aomine is almost the complete player, judging by the way he’s played for the Clippers so far, but his overwhelming advantage at basketball is also his overwhelming disadvantage at the game – that he’s entirely too selfish with the ball. Coaches tend to love players like these, because they often come complete with the single-minded aim of scoring, but I also feel like it’s why Aomine hasn’t gotten the number of minutes he should be getting so far. Once he gets his hands on the ball, he doesn’t let go – most of the time, at least. I don’t think he does it entirely on purpose, but there’s only one way to find out, and that is to get the answer straight from the horse’s mouth.

Aomine’s been sitting right in front of me for the past forty minutes, but he hasn’t said a word, preferring to focus his energy on dissecting the chicken wings in front of him and looking up once in a while to blink at us. He has to be bored, if Kagami’s assertion that he doesn’t understand a word of English is true, because Kagami and I have been chattering away for a considerable amount of time.

“Let’s get to know more about your friend over here,” I tell Kagami, after turning to offer Aomine a sheepish smile. Something about him, other than his build, intimidates me somehow. “I feel terrible about having left him out of the converation for so long.”

Kagami relays my message in Japanese, and Aomine replies while shooting me wary glances out the corner of his eye. This has gotten off to an awkward start. I blame the language barrier.

“He says that there’s nothing much to know about him,” Kagami translates. “It’s true. He’s boring.”

I can only assume that Kagami is saying that Aomine’s private life is boring, because there is nothing boring about the way Aomine plays basketball. I’ve done my homework. One little-known fact about Aomine is that he was involved with a group of Japanese basketball players called the Generation of Miracles. Sources tell me that it sounds better and less fanatical in his native language, since that’s where they were first given this name. It’s easy to come across news articles where this is briefly mentioned, but other than that, no one here knows much about Aomine’s basketballing past before his stint with the Tokyo Cinq Rêves.

I’ve tried with some difficulty to dig up information about this so-called Generation of Miracles, but almost none exists. All I’ve managed to get out of a few friends who are a little more familiar with the Japanese basketball scene is that it was the name given to a group of basketball wunderkind who played together in high school about ten years ago.

“There’s something I’m really curious about,” I begin, broaching the topic. “What is this Generation of Miracles you were supposedly involved with?”

“Oh, them,” Kagami says almost dismissively, and then promptly engages in another round of rapid-fire Japanese with Aomine that leaves me trying to listen on with rather fruitless results.

According to them, the Generation of Miracles initially comprised six middle school students who played for the same basketball club – Aomine was, apparently, the team’s ace. Each of them possessing exceptional individual talent, they would go on to win the national middle school tournament for three years in a row, before splitting up and going to different high schools upon graduation. Even then, they continued to be collectively known as the Generation of Miracles, and great attention was paid to their new teams by association. Clashes between these teams in competitions were always of great interest among spectators, and there was considerable attention from local sports magazines and pro scouts alike. Sounds incredible that a bunch of high school kids could raise this much awareness, but truth is often stranger than fiction.

Nevertheless, it appears that Aomine is the only one of the six who has made basketball his career. One of them is now in medical school; another is training to be a professional shōgi player – for the uninitiated, that’s Japanese chess. Yet another is, incredulously, studying for a pastry chef licence.

“A pastry chef licence? Really?”

“He ate a lot,” says Aomine, shrugging.

Shōgi-playing and pastry-making ex-basketball players aside, there’s an observation I want to make about Aomine. He’s obviously had a central role in all the teams he’s been a part of, even since young. There’s no denying that he plays in a class of his own. If Kagami’s strength lies in his ability to plough through defence with sheer brute force, then surely Aomine’s advantage has everything to do with his swift, quick, ever-changing, unpredictable play style. You don’t know what he will do next, and neither do his opponents, nor the audience that’s watching. He keeps you on the edge of your seat with the unending gamut of tricks he keeps up his sleeve – one-man alley-oops, scoring from behind the basket, you name it, he’s done it.

Which, again, brings me to the point that I mentioned earlier in this article. Why limit Aomine’s playtime? In fact, why limit both Aomine and Kagami’s play times and deprive us of a potentially devastating partnership in front of the net?

I have three hypotheses.

Number one: Aomine doesn’t do teamwork well, and the limit on his playtime will be lifted when he learns to do just that. His number of assists this season so far has been shockingly low for a player of his calibre; Kagami outstrips him three to one in this respect. Combine this with his extremely high scoring rate, and you come to the conclusion that he’s a highly individualistic player. Not that that’s a bad thing, because he’s spectacular at what he does, but it’s easy to see how that could cause an imbalance in the dressing room, especially among other forwards. This isn’t soccer, where there is a greater disparity in the role of each player, and where the Peles and Zidanes and Ronaldos are given free rein to destroy the goalpost. Not so in basketball, where there are only five to a side.

Aomine appears nonchalant when I question him about this.

“That’s how I’ve played since I was a kid,” he frowns (translation, again, courtesy of Kagami). “I could pass more, but that just isn’t my style. I get the ball and score, and that’s all there is to it.”

“He does try,” Kagami says to me in English, “when he feels like he wants to.” I’ll take that as a valid defence.

Number two: There’s no reason to up Aomine and Kagami’s playtime because they’re new to the league and their partnership isn’t even that great anyway, even less so now that they’re still not used to the pace here. I’ll have to admit that this is an extremely weak hypothesis. Both of them are doing great for rookies and I’d say that they’re adapting almost too well. As for that elusive partnership, it’s really anyone’s guess. I haven’t had the privilege of getting hold of any recorded footage of bj league matches, whereas published statistics just don’t say enough about how people work together. So is it pure assumption to think that just because the Tokyo Cinq Rêves and the Clippers have improved league records, it must mean that Kagami and Aomine cooperate well?

Yes and no. As I’ve explained, the two of them have very different strengths on the court. Kagami is good at reading the signals of his teammates and employs a rather straightforward approach to scoring, whereas Aomine is ostensibly more of a wildcard. They only ever play together for about a third of their current combined playtime under the current Clippers line-up, which is prone to experimentation.

But sometimes magic happens. Take the match against the Milwaukee Bucks last September. Aomine executed a blistering cross-court pass to Kagami, who caught it with the ease and finesse displayed by a precious few players. Then the usual lay-up, and the signature dunk. It was like something right out of a movie. They’ve never done it since then.

“He was doing what was necessary,” Kagami comments about the technique, which became somewhat of a hot topic among observers for weeks after. “It was strategy.”

And my final hypothesis, far-fetched as it may sound: the two of them are keeping their cards close to their chest, probably under instructions, and when the time is right, we’ll find out what exactly they’re honing – or hiding – right now. Something tells me they haven’t given all they’ve got yet. If you have a secret weapon, you don’t go around announcing exactly what it does.

Kagami and Aomine both respond with laughter when I raise the possibility, and Aomine even directs a chuckle at me, which I consider an improvement from the suspicion he was generating in my general vicinity minutes ago.

“We’ll see, we’ll see about that,” Kagami says cryptically.

Don’t take my word for it, folks, but I think our best bet is on hypothesis number three.




Kagami and Aomine are polishing off everything that’s in front of them with great relish, an hour and fifteen minutes since we’ve met, and I also find myself reaching the bottom of my own glass of the diner’s signature spiked chocolate milkshake.

“You guys are gonna be playing the Hawks here this weekend,” I begin, setting down my glass.

“Looking forward to it,” Kagami tells me, wiping his fingers with a huge wad of napkins. “We didn’t get a lot of play time in the previous match. I think we spent most of it on the bench, actually, since it was one of the earlier matches in the season, so hopefully we get more time on the court this time round.”

“Any players from the Hawks you really want to go up against?”

Aomine picks newbie forward Thomas Kingsley, whereas Kagami picks veteran forward-centre Paul English. Interesting choices for both of them, since Kingsley is noted for his strength and flexibility, and English for his rock-hard defense. Do keep an eye out for these potential match-ups on Sunday.

“One last question – and this really goes to the heart of the debate about international players,” I say, as a final parting shot. “You guys have done spectacularly ever since you were drafted into the NBA, as have other great international players before you. The thing is, I don’t know whether people are making a larger or smaller deal out of it, whether because coaches are using international players more often or because, in your case, you’ve played in America before, and maybe that makes you more localized. On the other hand, international recruitment still remains lukewarm, and to be honest, I don’t see it changing anytime soon. What’s your response to that?”

There’s a short exchange between them right after I ask this question, which, frankly, makes me a little worried about whether I’ve stepped on someone’s toes. Luckily for me, Kagami turns to me after a bit of discussion, and he doesn’t look upset in the least.

“Nationality doesn’t really mean anything. Not to me, anyway. I mean, I was raised here – doesn’t make me less Japanese or more American,” he says, raising an oddly-shaped eyebrow in contemplation. “But that’s got no bearing on whether I play basketball. I don’t want to think about issues like that in too much detail, because it takes away from what’s important. If you can play basketball, if you want to play basketball, you can play basketball anywhere.”

Good answer, and I think he might be right. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether he speaks English with a Californian twang, or if Aomine understands a word of the language. Instead, what matters is if they are going to keep playing the way they are playing for the Clippers right now, and how much they are going to improve in the long run. They are still young and unpolished and have got a long way ahead of them – they have got the potential, in my opinion, to become phenomenal players given the right conditions. And if they do, they can only become predecessors to other Asian greats in the NBA as the market for international talent opens up.

That, of course, is something that only time can tell. In the meantime, I’ll settle for letting their basketball do the talking.

 

Fred Benderson is a basketball correspondent for the Atlanta Sports Review. He can be reached at fbender@asr.net.