Fifteen elementary schools kids from local and international schools were doing one basketball drill after another at Ginowan Municipal Gymnasium near MCAS Futenma.
This is a familiar scene at Ryukyu Niarai Kanai, a basketball club that was launched three years ago by professional coaches. Kids from all over the island come to the club looking for an opportunity to learn a critical part of the game – fundamentals.
Starting with running and stretching, kids in light blue t-shirts moved on to drills including ball handling, dribbling and lay-ups.
“School clubs often don’t have the time to do enough training on the fundamentals. But, the fundamentals are very important for the game,” said Coach Ryo Akai, who is also the director of the club.
Of the two-hour session, the club spent more than half on fundamental drills before moving on to 3-minute games. From the basic trainings through the mini-games, the coaches gave detailed instructions, and the kids worked hard to put what they had just learned into action.
Some of the drills were meant to encourage kids to be physical, as they paired up to learn to take a charge against each other in the air or play one-on-one with a defender and a dribbler pushing each other shoulder-to-shoulder.
“I often say ‘basketball is a martial art,’” said Akai. “Kids these days tend to be weary of playing a physical game. It is important to challenge anything and see what happens rather than avoiding difficulties.”
Some of the kids admitted that the training is demanding, but they enjoy the challenge.
“I have been with the club for several months. It’s tough, but I like it,” said Willkie, a fourth grader from Okinawa Catholic Elementary School.
“I think my skills have improved since I joined the club,” said Abbot, another fourth grader from the Catholic school. “Sometimes the coach asks me to interpret for other American kids, and I enjoy that as well.”
The focus on fundamentals and a “no pain, no gain” mentality are well received by their parents as wells, according to the coach.
The club’s training has attracted youngsters from on-base schools, as well. Akai explained that among the 140 members in the club, about 15 students come from on-base schools.
“Last year, I had the opportunity to coach kids between the age of 13 and 15, and elementary school students on Camp Foster,” Akai said. “Jeff Knight, the coach of the on-base teams, has been a friend of mine for a long time, so he asked me to help his teams.”
In order to convince kids of the importance of fundamentals, Akai played with them to show his skills as an “active” player.
“Words are not convincing enough for kids. Some of them already have great acrobatic skills, but they tend to slack off basic plays. In a case like that, I beat them in one-on-one to show that basic skills are crucial to set the stage for big plays,” Akai said.
Since it started three years ago, Nirai Kanai has aimed to be a club that welcomes kids from all over the island, and the motto resonates with Akai, who has played basketball with people from all over the world. Growing up as a native of Chatan Town, he has played hoops with many Americans as well as Okinawans on-base and off-base. At the age of 40, he still continues to do that.
When asked about his next goal for the club, Akai wants more games with other clubs and to try 3-on-3 games. He always looking for more American kids to join the club.
“American kids from on-base schools often say they would like to practice with us more,” Akai said. “If they can do that, I am sure I would be able to help their game even more.”
Ryukyu Nirai Kanai Basketball Club
Tel: 080-8851-0859 (8 a.m. – 8 p.m.)
Notes: The club has six categories depending upon age and skill level: U-15 (select group), U-15, U-12 (select group), U-12, U-9, U-6. In addition to Ginowan Municipal Gymnasium, the club offers training at gyms in Naha city, Yonabaru Town and Itoman City, as well.