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TOKYO – They call him downtown Ira Brown.
His three pointers earned him the nickname. For years he played professional basketball in Japan. But he never dreamed that he would arrive on the Olympic stage.
“Not in a million years,” he said, shaking his head and laughing.
Not to mention playing for his adopted country, in a sport that made its Olympic debut for the first time in Tokyo. Three-on-three basketball is a ten-minute game. Three players from each team face off at 21 or the team with the most points in ten minutes. It’s kind of like the pickup games you would play in your driveway.
Brown grew up in Corsicana, Texas. Population just under 24,000. He got his athletic prowess from his parents.
“My dad was a football player and my mom was really, really, really good at softball. I mean my mom could have done anything,” he said.
But they struggled with addiction. His grandmother took care of him, his siblings and several of his cousins.
A tough childhood with millionaire dreams
“So there were around 15 to 17 people living in a three-bedroom house,” he said. “We pretty much all had to try to sleep in a bed. And finally, I made a little closet in my room that had like a little lock and a key that I would lock my things in.”
She worked hard to give them everything they needed.
“She was an absolute warrior with what she had. But I mean, she was just a one-woman wrecking team,” he said.
To earn some money, he and his sister used a stick to knock some pecans off the trees, then sold them to local grocery stores. He was about ten years old. They would collect cans and sometimes stuff candy into their jacket pockets at local convenience stores, then sell the treats at school to other children.
“It was just a struggle for a living because often we just didn’t have water, sometimes we didn’t have electricity,” he said.
Then a thirst for stability and security boiled in him. As a child, he had no aspirations to become a basketball star. He dreamed of the wealth he didn’t have.
“I always told myself that I wanted to be the first millionaire in my family,” he said. “It has always been my motivation behind the wheel.”
A way out through sport
And sport has become his way. At first it was baseball. His first love. It is a sport that brought him to his adoptive parents, both baseball coaches.
At 18, he was drafted into the minor leagues. When he didn’t reach the majors, he continued to play basketball at Gonzaga University in Spokane Washington. He was inspired to go to college by his older brother, the first person in his family to graduate from college.
Basketball introduced him to the world: Mexico, Argentina, the Philippines and finally Japan. It was there, he said, that he felt like he had found the security he was looking for.
“I didn’t want to go anywhere else in the world,” he said. “Japan was pretty much home to me. So I’ve stayed here ever since.”
He married, naturalized and later divorced. He currently plays for Osaka Evessa, a basketball team playing in League B, the leading professional basketball league in Japan.
Redefining what Japanese means
“It’s an honor to be Japanese,” he said.
And this year, the Japanese Olympic team, including Brown, is redefining what it means to be Japanese. Spark conversations about race and identity. Among the Japanese Olympians is tennis star Naomi Osaka. It was a mixed-race Japanese icon and the face of the Tokyo Games who lit the cauldron during the opening ceremony. His image adorns posters across the capital with the word “new” in English and “generation” or “world” in Japanese.
On the five-on-five basketball team is Washington Wizard player Rui Hachimura of Tomaya, Japan. There is Métis sprinter Abdul Hakim Sani Brown and in the women’s three-on-three basketball team Stephanie Mawuli, born to Ghanaian parents who emigrated to Japan.
“I feel like we are breaking down barriers, especially with the way they have treated mixed children before, especially when I first got here,” Brown said. “Then Naomi Osaka and Rui started to be very successful and suddenly the narrative started to change.”
On Wednesday, Latvia won the gold medal in men’s basketball 3v3. The Japanese team, meeting just three days before the Games, did not make it past the quarter-finals.
“To be honest with you, it’s just that I enjoyed the experience, win or lose,” he said. “Knowing that I gave it my all and failed. I’m okay with that.”
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