By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
TORRANCE.–The inari didn’t stand a chance.
Ken Asai gobbled down the rice wrapped in fried tofu his mother made, in seconds flat.
On the basketball court, Asai’s opponents haven’t fared much better.
The West Torrance High senior has traveled a highly unlikely path to where he currently sits, as the Warriors were prepping Friday for their second-round game in the CIF Southern Section Div. 3 AA playoffs.
A native of Tokyo, Asai arrived as a somewhat unknown quantity at West last fall – and has started every game this season. He’s averaged 10 points, three assists and three rebounds per game, including 18 points in West’s playoff opener Wednesday, a 62-54 win at Schurr.
Not bad for a guy who had to sneak into a gym just to practice.
“There was no place to play, no outside courts at any of the parks,” Asai explained about the Tokyo neighborhood where he grew up. “The nearest one was about 40 minutes away by train, so that’s the only option we had.”
Along with younger brother Daisuke, Asai would make the daily 5 a.m. trip to the sprawling Yoyogi Park, where the two would shoot pre-dawn baskets and run drills before rushing home and getting ready for school.
“I just wanted to play. That’s all I wanted to do,” he said.
Asai had caught the basketball bug years earlier, when he was a first-grader, not in Tokyo, but in Torrance. His father, Yasutaka, works for a Japanese governmental trade organization and was transferred to the States for his job.
“When we first came here, I guess I developed a passion for the sport,” Asai explained.
He was playing in a Torrance Parks and Recreation league when his father heard about F.O.R., the celebrated Japanese American youth basketball league. Involvement with the organization helped Ken make friends and only strengthened his love of the game.
After a few years, however, the family was back in Tokyo, and Asai said his skills weren’t exactly off the charts.
“By the time I reached junior high, I could barely play,” he said.
Asai attended an international school in Tokyo, a circumstance that had its nexus decades earlier.
Asai’s mother, Maki, was a high school exchange student and spent her senior year in Delaware. The experience had such a profound impact that she vowed to provide her eventual children with a multicultural experience.
“I knew for sure that I wanted my kids to be global citizens, to think on a global scale and consider many cultures,” she explained.
Young Ken didn’t pay much attention to all that. All he knew was that his school, a private institution outside the system of public schools in Tokyo, had little if any programs for interscholastic basketball.
“I didn’t know any of the other kids, and there wasn’t much for me to do except play basketball,” he remembered. “And the teachers all wanted to go home after school, so there was no one to open the school gym.”
A twist of fate in the locker room turned out to be a key for Asai – literally, a key.
“Someone had dropped a key to the gym, and my friend and I kept it, and we’d go practice at 6 every morning.”
The school coach, however, was not impressed, and after repeated infractions, Asai found himself transferring to St. Mary’s, one of the top international high schools for boys in Tokyo.
That’s when everything started to come together.
“The coach at St. Mary’s, Kris Thiesen, maybe recognized that I had some talent, and he began to work with me,” Asai said. “He had the same passion I did for basketball, and he opened some workout sessions in the mornings for us.”
Thiesen assembled a team of boys from international schools and military base schools in the area, and arranged for games to be played against other youth clubs in the area. Asai’s team was known as Tokyo Samurai.
When father Yasutaka was again assigned to the office in Los Angeles, another coach in Tokyo called ahead to West High, to investigate the possibility of Asai earning a spot.
“It was Dave Taylor who really helped me,” Asai explained. “He and other coaches helped me out, to make phone calls and put together a highlight video.”
“I was excited to have Ken join the team,” West head coach Neal Perlmutter told The Rafu. As a student majoring in Japanese at Duke University, he had spent a summer at Waseda University, and was excited to have a player from Tokyo join the Warriors.
“He’s one of the fastest players I’ve ever coached,” Perlmutter said about Asai. “In transition, with the ball, he’s basically unstoppable. It was pretty clear right away that he was able to compete at this level.”
West has a program to welcome new players and to help them feel comfortable, but Asai still struggled with one aspect of the game that can’t be taught.
“I struggled at first. I thought I wasn’t making an impact. My confidence was basically zero.”
Asai said every player on the Warriors has excellent skills, from the starters to the reserves, but confidence is the x-factor he lacked at first.
“I decided to make reminders for myself,” he explained. “I printed signs that said ‘Believe in Yourself,’ and posted them all over my house. Those were in every room to remind me to keep up my confidence.”
Asai said January was the turning point. Having worked with local longtime shooting coach Tom Morimoto, his shots began to hit the target at a much higher rate, and the game suddenly became fun again.
“It’s completely different now, unlike anything I saw in Japan,” he said. “The students care so much about their school team, and everyone has so much passion. I can really relate to that,” he said.
After this season ends, Asai will turn his focus to college. He has already ready received at least one offer to play basketball, though no decisions have yet been made.
All eyes were on Friday’s CIF matchup, where the 20-7 Warriors were set to take on a solid club from St. Paul, whose record this season is an equally sparkling 23-5.
“This is the fun part, where your team is good, and you play against another good team. I’m so glad I’m here,” Asai said.