For Rui Hachimura, a hoop star in two very different countries, time is a delicate dance | Gonzaga University

On the night of his NBA return, former Gonzaga star Rui Hachimura shared little about what kept him away for so long.

Did he feel better? He said he was feeling great after a well-deserved break after 10 years of a relentless basketball career. Did he learn anything about himself? Yes, in fact, he learned that he really liked basketball. Did he do anything while he was away? He watched his own highlights, which reminded him how much he loved the game.

Hachimura’s friendly reluctance was nothing new. The Japanese-born Washington Wizards forward has always been private, and his five-month hiatus from basketball has been publicly defined by the silence that surrounds him. It wasn’t a physical issue that caused Hachimura to take time off, but even since his return, only teammate Kyle Kuzma has used the words “mental health” when discussing Hachimura’s situation.

Rui Hachimura finally felt ready to return. Now what?

During Hachimura’s layoff, the wizards, his agents, and Hachimura himself barely said a word other than quiet updates from Washington on how he was progressing. There have been almost no leaks of information about his whereabouts or whereabouts for five months, which in the NBA ecosystem is virtually unheard of. Nor were there the usual things that the sporting public grew accustomed to as mental health became a mainstream issue of the era: no tryouts in the Players’ Tribune, no TV sessions, no Instagram listing as Hachimura’s compatriot Naomi Osaka when she fired out of Roland Garros last year.

Not all athletes are as forthcoming as Kevin Love or Simone Biles when it comes to their well-being, but in Hachimura’s case, cultural considerations may have influenced his decision to keep quiet.

Hachimura the basketball player has a simple job. Hachimura, the public figure, must consider how he presents himself both in the United States, where he enjoys the usual attention that could come with a former first-round pick, and in Japan, where his supporters are so rabid and his fame so great. that his face was plastered on a special edition Cup Noodles during the Tokyo Olympics, where he also served as the flag bearer for Japan.

“When you have a player known in several countries, it’s not one, and I have to be careful how I say it, it’s not schizophrenia, but it’s an awareness that cultures are different,” said Rick Burton, a sports teacher. management at Syracuse University with extensive experience in international sports business. “Japan is not the United States, and the way things are perceived, accepted or seen is different in different countries.”

Mental health is heavily stigmatized in Japan, where athletes in particular are meant to be images of stoicism. It’s not the norm to speak publicly about personal issues, and experts say there’s a widespread lack of mental health resources.

Perfection is the goal of Japanese society, a cultural aspect Masami Horikawa, a sports psychology researcher at Kwansei Gakuin University, said it was difficult for athletes to show up when they were in trouble. Hachimura faces the added pressure of dealing with backlash and discrimination online because he is biracial and does not fit the traditionally strict definition of a purely Japanese person.

“Not all pressure is bad, but as a culture, the Japanese expect individuals to be able to accomplish anything, and perfectionism is seen as a beauty,” Horikawa told The Post in July when an interview about the mental health of athletes during the Olympics. “So as a culture, we expect and praise individuals who are able to succeed on their own without any help.”

Social pressure goes hand in hand with commercial interests when it comes to managing an athlete’s time off. Hachimura’s historic draft selection – he was the first Japanese player ever selected in the first round – and his ability to reach a global audience made him extraordinarily marketable upon his arrival at the Wizards. Its partnerships include Jordan Brand, Japanese technology and electronics giant NEC, Nissin Foods and Casio, to name a few. Forbes estimated in 2019 that as a rookie, Hachimura was on track to earn $10 million in endorsement deals.

When an athlete takes time off, advertising campaigns continue and corporate partners are likely eager to know when an athlete will be ready to return to play. Even when they may not know each other.

“It adds to the pressure and anxiety of, not only am I letting my country down, but I’m letting my sponsors down, I’m letting my teammates down – and yet I don’t want to believe that I’m letting anyone down. “I have to take care of myself first. And yet I know that my agent, my general manager, my sponsors, my coach, everyone calls me and says, ‘Hey, it’s okay. better? Are you ready to play?’

“When do you have the power in your own life, in your own career to say, ‘Despite the challenges, despite the pressures, despite the media coverage, I’m going to walk away for a while because it’s not going to be good for me.'”

All the disparate factors seep into what Burton calls a “cultural stew” of stress for celebrity athletes who represent multiple countries – for which, in the world of public relations and sports marketing, there is no playbook. defined on how to operate.

Osaka, who took a high-profile mental health hiatus in 2021, is perhaps the closest comparison to Hachimura’s situation, but she was raised in the United States and became a public figure as the country radically changed attitude towards mental health and the athlete. well-being. Osaka has been open about her struggles, updating fans on social media and releasing a Netflix documentary amid a break from tennis.

Hachimura took the opposite approach and the wizards followed. While it was the striker’s decision when to return, coach Wes Unseld Jr. said the team was on point with his representation throughout his absence and set out a schedule for his return weeks before until Hachimura enters the field.

“Obviously COVID delayed it a bit, but there weren’t any real surprises. It was fairer, when it’s ready,” Unseld said. are aligned, and it worked well.”

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