4th December 2020

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Tokyo Samurai gradually changing face of Japanese basketball

Avi Koki Schafer was a diamond in the rough who was completely off the Japan Basketball Association radar before playing in scrimmage against the Japan U-16 national team in 2015.

When he showed up with the Tokyo Samurai for those games in October of that year, JBA officials were both impressed and caught totally off guard.

“So we scrimmaged and there was this 2-meter guy who was fighting like crazy inside,” said Torsten Loibl, who was coaching the U-16 squad at the time. “He gave our big men a hard time.”

The Tokyo Samurai squad, formed in 2014, is a unique presence on the Japanese youth basketball scene. It consists mainly of athletes from international and U.S. military base schools in Japan and isn’t eligible to compete in conventional high school tournaments.

That’s why Schafer had flown under the radar.

The Samurai are recognized as an American Athletic Union team. One of its biggest objectives is to expose players to coaches and scouts from colleges and universities in the U.S. to give them a better chance of playing there collegiately. While the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered the club’s operations this year, it still sent select squads to compete in AAU tournaments in the U.S., such as the Double Pump Best of Summer Tournament and the Tip-off Tournament in California.

For Schafer, who had switched from soccer to basketball in 10th grade, playing against a national team was just supposed to be a “cool experience.” Bigger and better things, however, were ahead for Schafer, who was born in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, to a Japanese mother and American father.

After playing against the U-16 team, he began regularly competing for Japan in international events like the 2016 FIBA Asia U-18 Championship and 2017 FIBA U-19 World Cup. Last year he suited up for the senior national team, which competed at the FIBA World Cup in China.

“Avi Schafer was a door opener for international players with Japanese citizenship,” said Loibl, who now serves as the director-coach for Japan’s men’s and women’s 3×3 teams. “Avi was the pioneer.”

Even as Schafer drew the attention of JBA officials during the U-16 scrimmages, those games also wound up being a showcase for the Samurai, which had mostly toiled in obscurity to that point.

Japan’s Avi Koki Schafer (right) stands with Rui Hachimura during a practice before an exhibition against South Korea at Ota City General Gymnasium in 2018. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Akira Yamamoto, director of the JBA’s youth development program, said that the sport’s domestic governing body had not been aware of the team. But after finding out it was a source of talent with players from different backgrounds, the JBA has been communicating with the team with increasing frequency in recent years.

“It opened our eyes that there are talented players with great potential,” Yamamoto said when asked about the JBA’s initial reaction. “We hadn’t paid too much attention to it before that. But we came to realize that after Avi was on board.”

Besides the 206-cm Schafer, who currently plays for the SeaHorses Mikawa of the B. League, the Samurai have sent several other players to Japan’s pro ranks, including Kendrick Stockman Jr. of the Yokohama B-Corsairs and Kaine Roberts of the Tokyo Earthfriends Z.

While the aforementioned players are biracial, the number of monoracial Japanese players is increasing, according to Kris Thiesen, who acts as the club’s director and is a head coach for one of the Samurai’s U-17 teams. The Samurai are divided into two U-17 teams, along with a U-16 and U-15 team.

Unlike normal Japanese high school programs, the team holds practices once a week, at St. Mary’s International School in Tokyo’s Futakotamagawa district. This year the squad has had to move between different public gymnasiums with the facility at St. Mary’s closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Because the team isn’t recognized as an official high school squad, it’s a challenge to set up games. The Samurai, however, manage to scrimmage against high school teams and the backup squads of college programs.

Damilola Mosaku, a prep-school player for St. Thomas More School in Connecticut on the “Slam Dunk Scholarship,” was one of the top players for the Tokyo Samurai and those in Japanese basketball circles have high expectations for him. Mosaku was a student at Christian Academy in Japan, an international school located in Higashikurume in Tokyo.

The 18-year-old, who hopes to enroll at a university in the U.S., feels his time developing his game with the Samurai has paid off.

“I’ve learned a lot about basketball style, learning how to move the ball like where to be on defense, stuff like that,” Mosaku said. “I learned a lot from Coach Thiesen.”

While you might imagine an American team would focus heavily on individual skills, Thiesen insisted that’s not an entirely accurate description of the Samurai. He said it’s also not a team that puts an outsize emphasis on winning.

“We want to win, but we don’t emphasize winning,” Thiesen said. “It’s about development. Also, you’ve got to show your best for us. It’s about team. Team basketball. So it’s not a lot of one-on-one stuff. It’s mostly discouraged because we are saying that if the level you want to get to is (U.S.) college level, they don’t want to see guys just go one-on-one.”

Many of the team’s biracial players have multiple passports, but Thiesen said that he would think “the majority of the kids want to come back” to Japan after college in the U.S. and potentially play in the Japanese pro circuit.

Thiesen hopes the Samurai can become a team that develops more monoracial Japanese as well.

“We are hoping to grow basketball for the Japanese people,” Thiesen said.

Yamamoto supports the Samurai’s quest to develop youth players in the U.S. for the sake of the overall growth of Japanese basketball.

“I think it’s very important,” Yamamoto said. “I think it affects one’s growth speed. Would Rui Hachimura be where he is today had he gone to a Japanese university? I’d say it’s probably impossible. He went through challenges at Gonzaga University and rapidly grew every year. You can say the same with Yuta Watanabe. It’s important where you put yourself.”

Up until a few years ago, the Samurai had been off the radar. But that has been changing in part because the JBA has placed more emphasis on developing the game in hopes of ultimately producing more world-caliber talents like Hachimura and strengthening its national teams.

In 2018, the Samurai were part of the B. League U-15 Challenge Cup and were invited to play in the B. League U-15 All-Star Game in Tokyo last summer.

Yamamoto said the JBA is currently working toward making it possible for the Samurai to compete at tournaments sanctioned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Basketball Association, which would give the team opportunities to play in competitive environments. The JBA envisions eventually running a league like soccer’s Premier and Prince League that exist for youth clubs and teams operated by the Japan Football Association.

For Schafer, who played college basketball at Georgia Tech before leaving to join the B. League’s Alvark Tokyo in 2019, playing for the Samurai was just a “cool experience” at the beginning. But it ended up paving the way for him while also providing the JBA with a deeper talent pool.

Schafer was direct when asked if he’d be where he was today without that experience.

“Definitely not,” Schafer said. “Without the experience, I wouldn’t be playing basketball right now.”

Schafer made his national team debut in the 2016 Albert Schweitzer Tournament, which is an international U-18 event held in Germany, and averaged 5.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in six games. He scored 10 points in a game against the U.S. in which Japan lost by seven.

Before the tournament, the idea of seeking a professional career in basketball had never crossed his mind.

“Before that, I was only thinking about going to college for academics, maybe play basketball for fun. I wasn’t thinking pro or anything,” he said. “And then, that (U.S.) game actually made me think, ‘Ok, I could go to Division I (in the U.S.), I could actually try out for it. That’s where I decided to go to a prep school (Brewster Academy in New Hampshire), that’s where I decided to go to Georgia Tech after that. Obviously (I ended up playing for) the national team. So yeah, Tokyo Samurai actually got me into pro.”

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)


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