By Joe Arruda
After a dominant performance against The Patrick School on Saturday night at the 2020 Spalding Hoophall Classic, the spotlight shone on Jaden Springer, the 17th ranked player in the ESPN top 100 list for the class of 2020.
The Tennessee commit did it all for the Ascenders, finishing the game with 17 points, seven rebounds, and three steals, earning Player of the Game honors.
After the game, the time came for interviews where, like they’re used to, Springer and Mark Williams (29th in ESPN top 100, Duke commit) were in high demand.
But, they were not alone in the interview room.
Accompanying them was Chikara Tanaka, a Japanese phenom-turned-role player on the No. 7 ranked high school in the country, according to ESPN’s rankings.
Tanaka got down on one knee, pretending to hold a camera and flash photos of his star teammate. While he was on his knee, Williams stood seven feet tall, holding a Gatorade bottle as a microphone.
What most don’t know is the guy on his knee is a full blown celebrity in another country.
“A superstar,” IMG Head Coach, Sean McAloon said.
His 21.1 thousand Instagram followers ranks third on the team, behind Springer and Jarace “J-Walk” Walker, the No. 11 player on ESPN’s Top 25 for the class of 2022.
“Walking into the gym, kids after kids after kids, just coming and coming. Some people get annoyed by that, but I kind of loved it because that was telling me that I’m influencing little kids and younger kids, even kids my age or even older,” Tanaka said. “It’s just me playing basketball, but I could influence other people and make them feel like if they work more they can get where they can get.”
When IMG went over to Japan for clinics, they couldn’t help but notice the way Tanaka’s stardom shined.
“We went to nine different cities I believe and even in the biggest cities, everybody knew Chikara Tanaka. He’s a star over there. He’s big time, especially to the culture out there in Japan,” Jonathan ‘Coach JT’ Thomas, an assistant coach for IMG said.
Two years ago, Tanaka left the country where he is beloved in hopes to tip-off against more intense competition.
“I just wanted to become a better basketball player myself and everyone knows IMG is just one of the best schools in America – just sports schools in general – so when I got the offer I decided to come here. Ever since then, the everyday process: working, getting my body better,” Tanaka said.
But, the support his Japanese fans have for him is unwavering.
“He is a megastar in Japan, a super megastar. Now we’ve just got to translate it over here. I know how amazing he is, but now we’ve got to show everybody else,” Uranius Johnson, a strength and conditioning coach for IMG, said.
“I’m talking about when you get off the airplane, there is a literal red carpet out there. Fans are out there with his name on a poster. So just imagine that, you have that transition of you being a superstar by 15-16 years old, and you come to America where you’re not that well-known. It’s a complete change of everything. He’s adapted amazingly to it. He is able to take his role right now and just expand each week.”
At the end of the loaded IMG bench, it can be easy for names to go forgotten, overshadowed by future collegiate and NBA stars on the court. However, every player clad in the black and blue is athletically capable of going to a Division I college and getting a shot at continuing basketball after education.
Each player is a valuable asset to the team and the coaching staff, spots on the roster are not simply handed out.
“We all play a role together. Even from the beginning, the first week we step on campus we get right to it. Whether we’re outside in the hot sun of August, we get right to it. Sand pits, hills, we literally call it the trenches, we in there. A lot of people have the misconception of IMG as what they say on the commercial. That’s not how we operate. We’re not even in a gym for the first couple weeks, we’re outside. We get very uncomfortable, so that when we face any type of adversity, we’re prepared for it,” Johnson said.
“We have a lot of guys who have big names, but then we’ve got names who aren’t as big, I tell them all the time, ‘You’re about to be a big name. It’s coming. This is why you’re working so hard.’”
For Tanaka, not being a big name is the least of his obstacles adapting to an entirely new culture in America.
But he feels that the 7,293-mile journey is worth it.
“I believe that if you want to achieve some goals in your life, you’re going to have to have some sacrifices. Not seeing my parents, not seeing my brother, not seeing my friends back home, not really speaking to them, I think that is one of the sacrifices I had to make to come over here,” he said.
“I accept it, but sometimes it gets hard because basketball is all ups and downs and ups and downs, and when it comes to that down moment – normally when your mother or your brother would come pick you up , they’re not there. So it is kind of hard, but it teaches yourself how to improve on your individual mentality and stuff like that.”
While he has had a bit of a delay in getting recognized in the United States, he has not slowed down his strides to improve. He knew the competition would be tougher, he knows earning substantial playing time is going to be difficult, but Tanaka is up for the challenge.
“It’s been a new transition for him, he’s learning every single day. We talk about it a lot, as far as basketball goes, the biggest difference is just the setting. The game is still the same, the ball may be different, the hoop’s height is still the same, the competition is different but nothing really changes besides, him being that great person he is,” Thomas said.
With his personality, his drive and willingness to improve, it won’t be long until his stardom travels with him.
Photos Courtesy of Danny Priest and Joe Arruda