Like most up-and-coming high school basketball players, Landen Lucas spent the past few years dreaming of playing at a big-time college and, eventually, in the NBA.
However, long before visions of venues like Allen Fieldhouse filled his slumbering head, Lucas’ dreams actually played out in Japanese.
Lucas, one of six true freshmen on this year’s Kansas University men’s basketball roster, was born in Tokyo, lived the first three years of his life in the Land of the Rising Sun and, later, spent most of his sixth- and seventh-grade years mastering the first language he learned while living in Fukui, a city of more than 800,000 people southwest of Tokyo.
“There were definitely a lot of ups and downs,” said Lucas, a 6-foot-10, 235-pounder out of Portland’s Westview High School. “You have times where you’re just homesick or at school you don’t understand half of what they’re saying, but I eventually just had to adapt and get the hang of it. And what that helps me with is stuff like here. You start feeling homesick or something, well this is not even close to being in a different country. I’m only in a different state.”
The idea of exposing Lucas to the country in which he was born belonged to Lucas’ mother, Shelly. Her flexible job and worldly perspective led to the idea that taking her son back to Japan would open opportunities unavailable to most boys growing up in America.
“It was a last-second decision, pretty much,” Lucas said. “We sold everything we owned and when we went over there we didn’t know how long we were gonna be there. She took me to some small town in southern Japan where they didn’t speak any English. She put me in school there and I had to become fully fluent.”
It worked so well that the young Lucas often spoke on his mother’s behalf during job interviews.
“I had to translate for her when we went over the second time,” he said. “That’s when I was really fluent. Any kind of translation she needed, I was there for her.”
Living on the other side of the world enabled Lucas to grow up at a different rate and in a different way than his American friends. But even half a world away, he still had basketball. The game was a little different over there, but not necessarily in a bad way.
“Whenever they commit to something, they commit to something 100 percent,” Lucas said. “We would have practices that sometimes would last all weekend long. We would have breakfast, lunch, dinner and sometimes sleep in the gym.”
Although the intense practice regimen was new to Lucas, the game itself was not that different. A pick and roll was still a pick and roll, a good jump shot was still a good jump shot and a guy who was willing to work the way Lucas was always found a place on any team.
That work ethic was something he picked up from his dad, Richard, who played basketball professionally in Japan and knew enough of the language, Lucas said, “to be in the huddle of the game, understand what they were saying and order something at McDonald’s.”
“I talk to my dad after every practice,” Lucas said. “He’s been through everything. Maybe not as high of a level, but he played at Oregon, he was a coach after that and he’s been through it all. He enjoyed doing the things people don’t enjoy doing. The great thing about that is, at every level, no matter what, you’re always going to find a spot for yourself if you play like that.”
Practices have taken on extra importance for Lucas this school year. As a red-shirt he won’t be playing in any games and will have four years of eligibility remaining starting next season. Even though he won’t have a direct impact on his team’s record this season, Lucas’ teammates already have been and continue to be impressed by his work ethic and drive.
“There’s always somebody who breaks down during Boot Camp, and everybody predicted it was gonna be him,” said sophomore point guard Naadir Tharpe. “But if you would’ve seen him at Boot Camp, you would’ve thought he could run with the guards. The shape he’s put himself in is just ridiculous.”
His teammates say Lucas’ best attributes stretch beyond basketball.
“He’s a real mature guy. You can tell he’s cultured,” said freshman guard Evan Manning, who admitted to pushing for Lucas to speak Japanese at random moments. “He hates it. It puts him on the spot.”
Added sophomore guard Christian Garrett: “I think I’ve heard him say a Japanese word or two, but I should ask him to say more. I have no idea what he was saying. He was just talking once about Japan and a word slipped in there.”
As the years have gone by and Lucas’ childhood memories of life in Japan — not to mention the language itself — have begun to fade, the 6-foot-10 power forward has leaned on his past experiences to handle anything life throws at him, be it at school, in his social life or on the basketball court.
“It helps with so much,” he said. “Just trying to adapt to situations. I’ve gone through so many life experiences.”
Lucas plans to incorporate Japanese into his class load at KU, perhaps even double-majoring so the first language he learned will continue to be a part of him forever.
“When I was younger, I used to dream in Japanese,” Lucas said. “Now that it’s totally the opposite, it’s fading away, but we’re trying to do our best to at least keep the communication part down because you never know where that could take you. It got me here.”