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CROWE'S NEST

Former Bruin is now Japan's J.R. Sakuragi

January 21, 2008|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Knowing next to nothing about the Japanese and their culture, former UCLA basketball player J.R. Henderson initially balked when offered a chance to play professionally in the land of the rising sun.

Seven years later, he's a naturalized Japanese citizen.

Henderson's transformation to J.R. Sakuragi, the new name taken by the seven-time Japan Basketball League all-star, was fueled by loyalty to his adopted second homeland, he says, but financial considerations played a part too.

It was a grueling, time-consuming process, says the 6-foot-8 forward from Bakersfield who averaged 9.2 points and 4.2 rebounds as a freshman for coach Jim Harrick's 1995 NCAA championship team at UCLA.

"Eight months of headaches and headaches and headaches," he says from his home in Kariya, southwest of Tokyo, "but I knew it was going to be like that."

Last July, after earning his Japanese citizenship, Sakuragi joined the Japan national team on the eve of the Asia Championship, an Olympic qualifier, but the Japanese still fell short in their bid to qualify for the Beijing Games.

Says Sakuragi, who typically spends about eight months a year in Japan but also owns a home in West Virginia, "I kind of came in too late, and we just couldn't get adjusted fast enough."

But Sakuragi, 31, hopes to keep playing until he's 40, so he'll have other chances to help Japan qualify for its first Olympic berth since 1976.

The former Milton Henderson Jr., Sakuragi averages more than 20 points and 10 rebounds a game for the Aisin Sea Horses of the JBL Super League. He averaged 14.2 points and 6.4 rebounds in four seasons at UCLA, twice earning All-Pacific 10 Conference first-team recognition, and was a second-round pick of the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 1998 NBA draft.

He played only 30 games in the NBA, however, averaging 3.2 points and 1.6 rebounds for the Grizzlies during the lockout-shortened 1999 season.

Two years later, after playing for teams in Las Vegas and France and summer-league teams in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, he signed on to play in Japan. Though apprehensive at first, the unassuming Sakuragi says, "I can pretty much adapt to any situation, as long as bombs aren't going off and stuff like that."

In Japan, he says, he found people not unlike himself.

"The way they are is kind of the way I am," he says. "I just keep to myself and produce, pretty much. That's what's kept me here for so long. I was never in any trouble. People here care more about off the court than on the court."

It doesn't hurt that Sakuragi annually ranks among the league's leading scorers and rebounders, or that he led the Sea Horses to championships in 2003 and 2004. After the consecutive title runs, Sakuragi says, Sea Horses Coach Kimikazu Suzuki "got kind of famous" and was named coach of the national team.

Suzuki in turn pushed his top player to become a citizen.

"I said, 'I'll do it, I'll try it,' " Sakuragi says. "Just because he's been so loyal to me, I thought it was the right thing to do. He pretty much wanted me to help out with the national team and help them get to the Olympics."

Although he was intrigued by the idea, Sakuragi says, "I didn't think it was possible unless I married a Japanese girl, and that wasn't going to happen."

That's because he already was married to an American. He and wife Jennifer, a West Virginian, have a 4-year-old daughter named Hailee.

So it wasn't until late in 2006 that Sakuragi got serious about naturalization, which involved learning the Japanese language and the 1,750 characters in the alphabet, not to mention countless interviews and mountains of paperwork. "I had to be able to read and write Japanese at a rudimentary level," says Sakuragi, who spent long hours in class, "and carry on a brief conversation."

To bolster his chances, he took a Japanese name.

Though balking at first because he considered the name effeminate, he settled on Sakuragi, which translates to cherry blossom tree. "The cherry blossoms here are a big deal," he says. "Also, Sakuragi is the name of a famous comic character who just happens to play basketball, so the younger people thought that's why I took it -- and I didn't bother to say it wasn't. I just went along with it."

At a news conference to introduce the national team last summer, Sakuragi spoke Japanese. This season, he says, his fan mail has tripled in volume. "I was surprised," he says, "to be embraced like I was."

Sakuragi also had financial motivation for the move.

As a foreigner, Henderson had his tax-free salary capped at $180,000 a year. As Sakuragi, a citizen of Japan, he'll be free this summer to earn whatever the market dictates. He hopes to at least double his salary.

"That wasn't the sole purpose of this," he says of his push for Japanese citizenship, "but you have no choice but to look at that. I'd be dumb not to, but the main reason for this was to play for the national team."

Sushi doesn't suit him, but Sakuragi says he feels at home in Japan and no longer stays awake nights wondering whether he could have made it in the NBA.

Says the former Bruin, "I plan on being here a long time."

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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