I always bragged that my son was “bred well” with height and athleticism. This is something tall people do…. After all I am 6 feet tall and his father is 6’7″. His dad and I both played college sports but when we grew up it was common to play a different sport every season. But we could see this was changing and young athletes were being pressured to pursue one sport year round. Therefore, we both agreed that we wanted Landen (our son) to ‘choose’ basketball on his own and never feel that he had be forced or expected to play. So, in an effort not to push him into playing basketball, I spent many years driving Landen to a variety of sporting events, activities, and tryouts, encouraging him to try any and every sport that he could.Whether through summer sports camps, after school activities, or official teams, by 5th grade Landen had participated in soccer, baseball, ice skating, street hockey, ice hockey, roller hockey, karate, bicycling (even completed a century with me. That’s 100 miles!) track, golf, football, swimming, ballet (I convinced him that Michael Jordan actually took ballet), and of course… basketball. I could not afford to put him in all of these sports on teams that charged, but I found ways to expose him to sports through cheap and free summer camps and youth programs, such as the Portland Youth Golf Association. I also found his sports equipment at Play it Again Sports (used equipment shop).
My son had made it clear over and over that he liked basketball the most. I coached his first three basketball teams, and his dad coached his fourth team. In 7th grade, his dad had a talk with him about the seriousness of the game and how highly competitive it was, but that if he really loved it and practiced hard, he could earn a scholarship.
We moved back to Japan in 2006. Landen was 11 yrs old, 5’4″ and taller than most of his 6th grade classmates and they were thrilled to have him on their highly competitive basketball team. He had no idea what dedication, commitment, and competition were until he began playing basketball in Japan. First of all, the elementary school 6th grade team, was actually a “club team” which had a female manager – Ishizaki San – who took basketball more seriously than anyone I had ever met! The coach was a cool, older man who showed up to most practices and games with a smile, some game time coaching, and some words of wisdom, but it was Ishizaki San who ran the practices. Everyone loved the fact that Landen’s dad had played for the JBL – Japanese Basketball League from 1993-97. Many of the parents remembered him and began asking Landen if he was planning on playing in the JBL someday. Landen really enjoyed getting to know his teammates. They were the first kids his age who he had ever met that were as competitive as he was. They pushed each other so hard! And Ishizaki San never tolerated anything less than 110%. She was determined to make my son the next famous Japanese basketball player. At one point she even tried to convince us to become Japanese citizens. Oh she really wanted us to stay. She took my son home with her everyday after school to tutor him. In Japan it is important to study school and a musical instrument. So while I worked, she taught Landen piano and helped him with his homework. Ishizaki San took us under her wing and taught us both a lot that year.
In Japan, schools and therefore, gymnasiums are NOT heated! Part of the “fighting-spirit” (toshi) engrained in every Japanese athlete comes from enduring cold temperatures and all day trainings every Saturday. Yes, very cold temperatures! It snowed in Fukui from December 1st to March 15th that year. And, there was no heat in the gym, ever. Landen would wear a few sweat suits and he said that usually, about half way through the training, their bodies warmed up enough that they could sit and eat lunch, but not for too long or they would get cold again. They began training at 8am, running with layers of workout clothes on, shooting, dribbling , etc, until lunch time, when they sat on the cold gym floor and ate bento (a specially prepared lunch from home) and drank hot green tea from their thermos. Of I got in so much trouble once for putting sugar in Landen’s green tea! Ishizaki San stopped by my house later that evening to tell me that he should never have sugar while in training and that she would be back the next day to teach me how to make a proper bento. I’m telling you, she was serious! After lunch, they continued training (Renshu) until about 4pm then each of the boys bundled up again and walked home in the snow.
About that bento…. it had to be a specific assortment of Japanese foods. When Landen showed up to the first training with a paper bag filled with a sudo-American sandwich and carrots, he was embarrassed by my teammates who had ‘bento boxes’ and, worse yet, he was scolded by hi trainer for not bringing Japanese food. So, Ishizachi San taught me how to prepare exactly what she wanted my son to eat. She even helped me grow some of the vegetables in the neighborhood garden. The boxed bento had to include onigari (rice seasoned with a special vinegar and a pickled plum in the middle of a triangle-shaped, hand-molded snack), cooked vegetables (usually supersedes or broccoli or carrots boiled in sugar water), cold egg (scrabbled or boiled), chicken and spaghetti. Thank God it didn’t include edamame these tiny little dried infant sardines with eyeballs and all! Landen hated edamame and it was often a part of the mandatory school lunch. He couldn’t stand the way it looked or the fishy smell. Nutrition is an important aspect of learning in Japanese Elementary School. Children are served a hand made hot lunch everyday. They learn from a young age that green tea, fish, and seaweed are vital to good health, and it is considered neglect if a parent does not feed their children properly.
As the basketball season progressed, Saturday practices became tournaments and my son’s 6th grade club team – Keimo Sugako- started winning so many games in Fukui and Fukuoka Prefecture that they were expected to be the regional champions and possible win nationals. They played great and kept winning right up until the game before nationals.
A lot of lessons were learned through this experience of playing sport in Japan. ‘Never Give Up!’ is chanted over and over by the fans and your teammates on the bench. It is a fighting spirit that you must have to win but it never supersedes sportsmanship. At the end of every game, win or lose, the boys humbly commend and congratulate the opponent. Then they get back to training even harder. I am so grateful for the lessons my son learned regarding toughness and persistence. I could not have taught him how to endure that level of competition without immersing him in it and being there to hug him and tell him I’m proud of him at the end of each day. I would not trade this experience for anything! During Landen’s 6th grade year, age 11-12, he grew from 5’4″ to 6′ tall. (read the Sports Nutrition blog for tips on feeding your aspiring athletes).