Hachimura: ''Beating Australia was one of the greatest performances in our history''
TOKYO (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers) - Japan whipped up a storm in the third Asian Qualifiers window after winning both their games and barging into the second round - much of it thanks to rising star Rui Hachimura.
The 6ft 8in (2.03m) Hachimura gave the Akatsuki Five a huge lift in the third window, putting up 24 points and 7 rebounds in their stirring 79-78 upset of erstwhile unbeaten Australia and then following that up with a 13-point, 3-rebound, 1-steal and 1-block performance in an easy win over Chinese Taipei, 108-68.
The enormity and significance of those results are not lost on the young Hachimura, who missed Japan's first four assignments in the Asian Qualifiers but made a really big difference for them in the games that mattered the most.
"That was tough, very tough, but we did it!" he exclaimed after their big victories. "I am so happy that we won those last two games and that we clinched a spot for the next round. We were close to getting eliminated, but we turned things around and are satisfied by the way we played. We did everything to get those wins and go to the next round. It was very good to see the guys happy and relieved, but now it’s time to start focusing and working towards that next step."
Against the Boomers, in particular, Hachimura was pure magic, seizing the Japanese fans' imagination with the way he weaved in and around the Aussie defense. Not even bona fide NBA player Thon Maker, who made his national team debut for Australia in that encounter, could do much to slow Hachimura down.
"That game was so amazing," Hachimura said. "We put everything out on the court as we knew that it was a 'do or die game.' Australia have an amazing team and plenty of talented guys, so beating them was one of the greatest performances in our history. This kind of win gives us a lot of confidence as we showed the level we would compete at and how well our team could play."
As good as Hachimura was, though, it cannot be denied that the team benefitted from the all-out support of the fans who trooped to the sold-out Chiba Port Arena. Hachimura acknowledges how the crowd raised their spirits and gave them more confidence to take on the Boomers. The 20-year-old Gonzaga Bulldog cannot wait to return home and play in front of their fans again.
"It feels good to play home, and it feels better to win at home," he said. "It is very nice to play at home, as you feel the passion and the crowd pushing you for the win. This game against Australia was one of the most intense I have played at FIBA level, and to share the happiness of winning this great game with our fans was such a great moment. I am looking forward to play other games in Japan, and share those great moments with our fellow compatriots and home fans."
Hachimura hopes that this will be the sign of a resurgence in the sport back home, and he is excited at the prospects of a future where basketball is front and center in Japan.
"It felt good to see that a lot of people came to see us play and that basketball has more and more fans all around the country," he explained. "We definitely felt the love from our fans. We count on our home crowd to also be a difference maker and be the 'sixth man' in the next windows."
Japan's third window results put them through to the next round of the Asian Qualifiers into the same group as Australia, Philippines, Iran, Kazakhstan and Qatar. The Akatsuki Five carry their 2-win, 4-loss slate to this group and face Team Melli, the Steppe Wolves and Al Annabi in the next three windows. Odds are only the top three teams of the group will make it to the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in China.
"Our group has a lot of talented teams like Iran and Australia, who have more experience than the other teams, and they have 5 wins entering the second phase so they are the favorites to go to the World Cup 2019," he said. "We were able to beat Australia, so we can be ambitious and try to win as many games as we can and try to get into the top three spots. We have some momentum going, and it would be great to keep it going for the next games. It’s going to be a great challenge, but we are going to fight to try to get a spot for the next FIBA World Cup."
Japan first face Kazakhstan on 13 September on the road before returning home to host Iran on 17 September. Japanese fans are surely hoping to see Hachimura back in action, and though the former Meisei high school star hasn't made things formal yet, he hopes to be available in the fourth window as well.
"I would like to play in the next window, and I am going to do my best to be here with the team for the next two games and help the guys," he shared. "I really enjoy playing for the national team, and wearing the Japanese jersey is very important for me. I want to help the senior national team be competitive."
If Japan do manage to qualify for the Basketball World Cup, Hachimura knows that it would be nothing short of a dream come true for the country. The last time they played at the Basketball World Cup was in 2006 when they hosted the event in Saitama, but since then, the Akatsuki Five have fallen short of qualifying in both 2010 and 2014. If their current momentum takes them to the top three in their group, Hachimura knows it would be a big boon for Japanese basketball in general.
"That would be amazing, a dream come true," he said. "I think that we have a chance to qualify if we play the same way we did in the last two games. That would be a great achievement for Japan’s national team, and it would give us the opportunity to gain experience at the highest level, which is very important for us in order to keep growing and improving. We have six games to play to try to make our dream come true and we are going to play them like if they were the finals."
That's something every Japanese basketball fan will be hoping for, and Hachimura's presence certainly makes the possibility of qualifying even more enticing. Beyond the national team, however, Hachimura knows he has become somewhat of a beacon of hope in Japan. He knows that the trail he (along with fellow US NCAA product Yuta Watanabe) has blazed has opened up rare opportunities for young talented Japanese hoopsters, and now their horizons seem brighter than ever. The former Japan national youth team captain takes pride in being this kind of role model for his countrymen, and he is determined to keep making them proud.
"I take the fact of being a role model very seriously," he explained. "I will always work hard, always wanting to do my best and make my fellow compatriots proud of the job that I have been doing. If my career and story can inspire the youth back home, I would be very happy. I love basketball and I want to help our sport keep growing and have more and more kids playing basketball all over Japan."