Journey From Japan

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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Dice Yamaguchi caught a glimmer of his NBA future as a middle school boy in the metropolis of Fukuoka, the largest city (pop. 1.4 million) on the Japanese island of Kyushu. He doesn't remember the day or the year. He only recalls an image, and how he was awed by the athleticism and artistry of Michael Jordan above the rim.

It wasn't that Yamaguchi hoped to be like Mike. It wasn't that he imagined competing in the NBA. But there was something about the magic of the sport, the electricity of the game, that gave rise to an idea. Maybe one day I could see NBA action in person.

A group of exchange students from New York City visited his middle school. At the invitation of his parents, two members of the group stayed in the Yamaguchi home. A teenage boy learned new words, picked up phrases and became enchanted with English.

Maybe one day. ...

The journey from young Japanese dreamer to Spurs assistant athletic trainer is a tale of improbable turns and stops and two failures.

When Yamaguchi joined the Spurs in 2011, he boasted an exotic resume. There was the bachelor's degree from Indiana State University, the one week spent as a volunteer trainer with the Indianapolis Colts, an internship with the Indiana Pacers, a master's degree from California University of Pennsylvania, a gig with the Philadelphia Eagles, a stint with the Austin Toros of the NBA Development League.

A romantic thread that ran through the narrative. At Indiana State, Yamaguchi fell in love with an exchange student from Japan. She returned home for five years, came back to the U.S. and the couple got hitched. "We've been married for one year," Yamaguchi says.

None of it would have happened -- the marriage, the college degrees, the athletic training gigs -- if not for two stumbles.

After finishing high school, Yamaguchi applied to The University of Tsukuba, hoping to study sports science. He thought he would pursue biomechanics and learn how to help athletes' improve their performances. The entrance exam required Yamaguchi to demonstrate a combination of academic and athletic skills. He flunked.

Yamaguchi isn't sure which part he failed. He says he was never told. One thing, though, is certain: He wasn't a gifted athlete. Yamaguchi made his high school basketball team but notes: "I was the guy who sat on the bench and cheered for the team."

Applicants to the University of Tsukuba, Yamaguchi says, had to perform skills in three sports. He chose basketball, baseball and swimming. After failing, Yamaguchi attended a prep school to prepare for a second attempt. To improve his chances athletically, he replaced baseball with badminton. "I didn't make it," he says.

Heartbroken, Yamaguchi refused to consider a third attempt. He considered that door closed and looked elsewhere. He remembered his fascination with the United States, his enchantment with English, his infatuation with the NBA and, voila', an idea materialized. Athletic training.

He scoured the U.S. for an accredited university and found one with affordable tuition. He took an intensive English course, applied to Indiana State, got accepted, and with the blessing of his parents, left his native country for a faraway land at 19-years-old.

San Antonio? He didn't know much about the city or its NBA team. All he knew about the Spurs from watching TV in Japan was they had this big guy -- "I liked David Robinson because he was so athletic" -- and by the time Yamaguchi reached Indiana, The Admiral was near retirement.

At Indiana State, Yamaguchi picked up more English, began dating his future wife and got his degree in athletic training. Opportunities he never imagined in his youth opened. He filled water bottles for the Colts, worked with the Pacers and secured a master's degree in athletic training.
A professor directed him to a job with the Eagles. Another professor told him about the Austin Toros. Then along came an offer from the Spurs.

Once, all he wanted was to see one NBA game in the flesh. Now he works 82 regular season games a year. The Spurs' culture has left him awestruck. Everyone, Yamaguchi says, from coach Gregg Popovich on down practices humility and treats him as an equal.

"I enjoy every single day," Yamaguchi says. "When I wake up, I never feel like I'm going to work. I'm going to a dream job."