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Sunday, April 5, 2009

INSIDE LOOK

Dreaming of a hoop career back in Japan


NEW YORK — Editor's note: After appearing in 105 games for Columbia University and ending his college career third on the school's all-time 3-pointers made list (173), shooting guard K.J. Matsui took time away from his busy academic workload to reflect on his playing days and look ahead to the future.

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News photo
Great experience: Columbia University senior guard K.J. Matsui matured as a player and as a person during his four years at the Ivy League school. COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

After four busy, memorable years, I'm preparing to graduate from Columbia University in May. Majoring in economics is a practical option for me.

Because New York City is the central city of economics in the world, being an economics major at Columbia can lead to a lot of benefits such as great internships, meeting many different people and having a chance to work on Wall Street or for great monetary institutions.

From my junior year, I was thinking a lot about my future — to work at a bank or play basketball after I graduate. I've decided to play basketball.

I've asked this question to many different types of people, and most of them said, "You should play basketball. You can always work at any time in your life, but you can only play basketball up to a certain age."

Basketball has changed my life. It gave me an opportunity to come to the United States, play against top competition and be able to attend a great institution, Columbia University.

My parents told me that if I didn't have basketball, I wouldn't have had a chance to get accepted into Columbia.

In short, I've used basketball as a tool to make my life better. And when the time comes to retire from basketball, hopefully I can use my Columbia degree to get a good job.

Now, however, it's time to focus on the post-college phase of my basketball career. There are so many people who care about me and made me a better basketball player and a better person, and I'm grateful for those things. It's now my turn to pass on these same things to the next generation of Japanese players.

This season, there were only two Japanese-born players in Division I basketball (University of Portland guard Taishi Ito, a Mie Prefecture native who was my teammate in high school, is the other). This number is too small.

Therefore, I want to make an impact for future generations and inspire them to elevate the sport in Japan. By playing basketball professionally, I can give inspire them to have same motivation — coming to the United States to play ball — I had when I was young.

I'm sure that if more players come to America, the level of basketball in Japan will get better. And, as a result, Japan will be able to compete against the world.

* * * * *

At this moment, I would say playing in Japan is the best option I have. I spent the last nine years of my life in the U.S. and I really miss my home. I have never played a game in Japan and always wanted to play in front of my family and friends.

News photo
Hoop dreams: K.J. Matsui, who has helped blaze a trail for future Japanese basketball stars, wants to play for the Japan national team in the future. He has his sights set on playing in either the JBL or bj-league next season. COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

Some people have suggested that I should welcome the challenge of playing professionally in the U.S. or Europe, but I know the level that I need to be at to compete against those players.

I've played with or against many great players at the high school level and in Division I basketball. There are so many great players in the U.S. that only a small percentage of them are lucky enough to go to NBA. For example, I played at perennial national powerhouse Montrose Christian School for five years and only two Montrose players went to NBA. That shows how tough and competitive the NBA is.

It's the same thing in Europe, where each team has a limited number of players from the U.S. on its roster. That's why I believe playing in Japan is my best option.

Columbia's season ended on March 7, so I'm now looking ahead to the future. Hopefully I can make some key contacts with people in Japan.

I would like to know where I'm playing next season before graduation, but I have to think that since it's a very important decision for me to make I need to exhibit patience.

One of the reasons why I want to play in Japan is that I want to play for the national team. I love my country and am willing to play for it at anytime.

I was fortunate to be a part of the Under-19 World Select Team to represent Japan and Asia in the 2005 Nike Hoop Summit. As that experienced taught me, the motivation for those games is completely different than other games because I'm representing my country.

In the future, I want to show the rest of the world that Japanese can play ball. I still remember this great feeling when I received my uniform at Hoop Summit, which has the word "Japan" printed on the front of the jersey and the Hinomaru on my warmups.

I don't know if I'm good enough to be on the national team because I have never played with or against anyone in the JBL, the bj-league or the national team, but one of my goals is to lead the Japanese national team to the Olympics or the FIBA World Championship if I can be selected.

Playing against guys like Cavaliers superstar LeBron James, Hornets point guard Chris Paul, Rockets center Yao Ming, as well as Nuggets guard/forward Linas Kleiza and Thunder swingman Kevin Durant (my high school teammates) would be an incredible opportunity for myself, the basketball world, and most important for Japan if it can be achieved.

For me, this has been a long, unforgettable journey. I came to the United States when I was 14 years old and didn't know where I'd be nine years later. But I was lucky enough to play at Montrose Christian School and became the first Japanese-born male to play in Division I.

I've learned that playing basketball in Division I is more a test of one's mental skills than one's physical strengths. Of course, playing against more physical and athletic players is a challenge for anyone to handle, but the hardest thing is the mental part.

The keys?

Working hard and doing the right thing every day, even if the situations weren't the way you expected them to be.

I experienced tough situations when I wasn't in the rotation or didn't play well. However, because I kept my composure and stayed patient, I was able to weather the storm at different times over the past four seasons at Columbia.

My college basketball experience will help me succeed in the future because I've already been exposed to a number of good and bad situations. So when they occur in my daily life, I'll remember the lessons I learned as a student-athlete and use those experiences to cope with future challenges.

Finally, I would like to thank everyone who took the time to read my columns, and thanks for those who helped me get to where I am right now.



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