Thirteen years into my professional basketball career and I find myself in a very familiar place. That place is Japan.
In 2007 I signed my first contract overseas that would actually have me out of the country for an entire season. I signed with a team in Sapporo, Japan. Yes, as in Sapporo the beer company. Sapporo is located on a northern island of Japan, Hokkaido. Sapporo at the time, was the fourth largest in city in Japan. Knowing that, I felt a little more comfortable, because the bigger the city, the better the chance I would have at finding other English speaking people. For the first two to three months I spent a majority of my time with my American teammate Tyler Newton, who went to the University of Pacific, and the teams assistant coach, who was also our translator. My Japanese teammates who didn’t speak much English at the time were really cool. They used to take the time to try to teach me Japanese as much as possible, so I wouldn’t be completely lost. I learned all the bad words first, and then I would piece those words together to form sentences. In a short amount of time I could speak a little Japanese, or at least catch the verb in a sentence to try and understand what someone was saying to me. Eventually I learned enough Japanese to venture off on my own in a taxi, telling the cab driver where to go and I knew how to say my address. I know friends back home are thinking, “Wad I didn’t know you spoke Japanese at all”, well it wasn’t like I could speak it to you, so you wouldn’t know. Eventually I got over the language barrier, but my transition still wasn’t complete and remember, this is before an app on your phone could do anything to help.
Hokkaido is very well known for its seafood cuisine. Sounds good to most, but for me it was a nightmare because I am highly allergic to ALL SEAFOOD. I found out my all about my allergy in the worst way, on trip to Sea World. My allergy is so severe that the smell alone will have a crazy affect on me. Not only did I have to be really careful of the seafood, everything looked different. For the first month or so I felt like every meal was fear factor worthy. I will never forgot one time I was eating what I thought was just plain spinach only to get to the bottom of the container to find a whole fish eyes and all looking up at me. I ran straight to the nearest bathroom. We all know what happened after that. From that point on my team made sure to keep all seafood away from me. They went as far as to notify fans that I was allergic to seafood so they would not gift me anything that may contain anything from the water. I had a few trips, or eight, to the hospital for IVs, but over all Japan was becoming like a second home.
After I was fully settled in and familiar with my surroundings, I started to have my friends and family come to visit. Everyone was blown away by the innovation in Japan. Japan was the first place I had seen people watching TV on their phones. Huge flat screens TVs were already popular here. They had heated roads. Like I mentioned before Sapporo was located in the northern part of Japan, so we would get tons of snow, but every time there was snowfall the streets were clear by morning. Even the toilets were high tech. The toilet in my apartment had a heated seat, played music and had other features that I didn’t need. One visitor in particular who came to make memories with me was my then girlfriend. She stayed for a while we would venture through the city together on cold snowy nights. One night we stumbled upon the Sapporo Ice Festival in Odori Park, which was right behind my apartment. The Ice festival is definitely something to see. There were ice sculptures that were the size of buildings yet as detailed as any painting you could think of. While my girlfriend was visiting I had made special plans for her. I was planning to make her my fiancé. I got the blessing of her mom, and had our good friend do some spy work to figure out what type of diamond she would like. I got the ring made by a great jeweler and good friend in Chapel Hill, Mr. Ken Jackson. After the ring was completed and paid for Mr. Jackson sent it to me in Japan. Words can’t explain how nervous I was knowing that the ring was in the mail on its way to me. I tracked it multiple times everyday. I almost lost my mind when I tracked it and it said it had been delivered yet I didn’t receive anything. My translator drove me an hour to the main post office and we found the package. One night after dinner my girlfriend and I were walking and talking in Odori Park. My plan was to propose to her under the light tower, which is like a small replica of the Eifel Tower. Just as we approached the lights shut off, I didn’t know they shut off at the same time every night, it wasn’t like I could read the signs. So I went ahead with my plans, faked like I dropped my hat and proposed. She immediately said yes and started crying. I had to remind her how cold it was, and I suggested that she save those tears until we got back to the apartment.
Over the years people always asked me about my time in Japan and I always told them how much I loved it. I made so many friends who I kept in contact with over the years and the fact that my wife and I got engaged here is another reason Japan has always had a place in our hearts. I am a firm believer in speaking things into existence and I always said I would one day return to Japan to play. Ten years later, here I am back in the country that I learned to love. This time around, my family and I will be in Tokyo and we have new technology on our side to make life that much easier for us. If you follow me on social media you’ve probably seen the pictures and videos of me out and about in the city, learning the train stations and showing off my skills with chopsticks. I am looking forward to an outstanding season with my new team and I am also looking forward to creating new memories with my family and friends.
Till next time… STRIVE TO EXCEL! PEACE AND BLESSINGS!