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Japan basketball: Playing for the missing one

Summer Games 3 August 2023

In sports like basketball, maybe more than anywhere else, people focus almost exclusively on stars. On the current ones. The shining ones.

As an athlete, if you perform less, or if you miss an extended period of time, no matter the reason, the public can easily forget you. Someone else will take the spotlight. Someone else will be talked and written about.

Such is the sometimes cruel reality of high-level sport.

Miura Maika (Japan) pulls up for a jumper against Finland

The Japanese women’s hoops team decided to do things differently during the Chengdu FISU World University Games.

Guard Yamada Aoi severely broke her ankle before getting to China, creating a deep shock within the squad.

“She did all the preparation with us, and injured herself just one day before we left Japan. We play every basketball game for her now,” explained shooting guard Tateyama Mona.

The Hakuoh University student and her teammates keep a jersey with Yamada’s name and number on the bench at every game of the competition. After the final whistle, players and staff all gather at mid-court, one hand on Yamada’s empty shirt.

“It’s like she is among us, and we all feel better about it. We have created a strong bond over this, like a force-field,” said power forward Tanaka Ufuoma about her 20-year old injured teammate.

Surely enough, after Japan’s convincing 69-56 win over Finland in the first FISU Games semi-final on Thursday, the number 0 jersey was once again raised in the centre of the Fenghuangshan (meaning “Phoenix Mountain”) Sports Park Gymnasium, every hand touching it.

Guided by Tokyo Health Care University student Okamoto Miyu’s 20 points, including 15 on three-pointers, as well as 15 points from Miura Maika, the Japanese comfortably secured their spot in Saturday’s gold-medal final.

Sara Bejedi (Finland) looks to defend Okamoto Miyu (Japan) in women’s semi-final action

It marks Japan’s first appearance in the title match since Taipei 2017, when it took silver.

The championship game will showcase a battle of Asian powerhouses as Yamada’s teammates will face China, which qualified after defeating neighboring Chinese Taipei in the second semi-final 83-61.

Host China last played for gold in 2003, winning its second FISU title.

Well prepared for a hostile environment at Phoenix Mountain, coach Hidenori Kashiwakura and his players are ready for the crowd to enhance the atmosphere even more.

“It’s a great arena, but we will focus on what we have to do, that’s all. We are ready for the crowd,” assured Tanaka.

The FISU Games final will be a chance for Japan to get the country’s first ever gold medal in basketball.

Something likely to put some pressure on Yamada Aoi’s teammates?

“Not at all,” answered Tanaka and Tateyama in unison.

Maybe these young women are truly blessed by their missing teammate’s aura after all.

Written by Louis Gilles, FISU Young reporter