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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Former UCLA player gets Japanese citizenship, spot on national hoops team


Staff writer

Most fans are probably not familiar with this name: J.R. Sakuragi. But if they hear the name J.R. Henderson, that may ring a bell.

News photo
J.R. Sakuragi, a former NBA player known as J.R. Henderson, has become a Japanese citizen and will play for the Japan National Team in the FIBA Asian Championship, which begins on July 28 in Tokushima. KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

As the FIBA Asia Championship begins on July 28, the 12-man Japan National Team roster for the tournament was finalized and Sakuragi, who has recently acquired Japanese citizenship, found his name on it.

Sakuragi, a 203-cm forward, is expected to be a big presence in the paint for Team Japan in the upcoming Asia Championship in Tokushima, which will be the region's qualifier for next year's Beijing Olympics.

"This player had applied for the citizenship a long time ago, but it wasn't permitted so soon," said Japan coach Kimikazu Suzuki at a news conference after the team's open workout and farewell ceremony for the Olympic qualifier at Yoyogi Gymnasium Annex on Monday.

According to Suzuki, Sakuragi finally received the citizenship on July 2.

Suzuki said that he did not know if Sakuragi would get the citizenship in time for the tournament, but had asked him to train to keep him in shape.

Sakuragi, a native of Bakersfield, Calif., played his college ball at powerhouse UCLA, where he was a member of the team that won the 1995 NCAA title. After averaging 14.2 points per game in his four-year career at the school, Sakuragi was a second-round draft choice, the 56th overall pick, of the Vancouver Grizzlies (now Memphis) in the 1998 NBA Draft. He played in Vancouver for one season.

The 30-year-old arrived in Japan in 2001 to play for the Aisin Seahorses of the JBL Super League. He's spent the past five seasons with the team. Last season, he averaged 21.5 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.

"He's been here for a long time," said Suzuki, who also coaches Aisin. "So he knows how other Japanese players play well enough and he was able to be part of the national team in training without any problem."

As a provisional team, Suzuki's squad started its training for the Olympic qualifier in April, with the same core group of players. So there is anxiety whether Sakuragi will fit in on the squad before the Asia Championship despite his unquestionable ability as a player.

But Suzuki and other players think there are more positives by adopting Sakuragi than negatives.

"With (Sakuragi) being inside and getting the ball more, we'll be able to create more space outside," said captain Kenichi Sako, a veteran guard.

"Also, the degree of reliance on scoring inside will raise. And he can play in a transition game and passes the ball. This is his first training camp (Friday through Monday), though, he has already made some changes in our rhythm."

Sakuragi, looking a bit nervous at Monday's workout and ceremony, had to immediately leave the arena without talking to the media, but released a statement, saying, "I'm pleased. I've been here for six years and have had so much respect for the Japanese people. It was a huge decision for me, but (I) came to this after consulting with my parents and wife."

With the participation of Sakuragi, center Shunsuke Ito, of the Toshiba Brave Thunders, has been left off the team.

Team Japan will try to capture the first berth in an Olympics since the 1976 Montreal Games in the July 28 to Aug. 5 tournament, in which only one nation will get an automatic berth in the Olympics.



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