How J.R. Henderson became J.R. Sakuragi, Japan's best basketball player

Sandra Mu

Naturalized citizens competing for foreign teams in international competition isn't anything new, but the case of Japan's J.R. Sakuragi -- currently competing in the FIBA Asia Championship tournament as part of the process to qualify for the 2016 Olympics -- is particularly interesting.

It's not getting a lot of publicity, but the FIBA Asia Championship tournament is currently happening in the Philippines as 15 teams attempt to qualify for the 2014 FIBA World Cup and, eventually, the 2016 Olympics. It would seem as though Iran and China are the only teams worth paying attention to, but some digging on Japan center J.R. Sakuragi has made the Japanese National Team quite interesting as well.

That's because Sakuragi used to be Milton Henderson, Jr. -- better known as J.R. Henderson, a member of the 1995 NCAA champion UCLA Bruins and Vancouver Grizzlies before his career took a rather tumultuous turn.

The 6'8 forward was a two-time member of the All-Pac 10's first team and appeared in 30 games for the Grizzlies during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season before embarking on an overseas career. That career eventually led him to the Japanese league's Aishin Sea Horses and, eventually, the opportunity to play for the country's national team as a naturalized citizen.

That's where things got a bit weird, though, as the California native decided to change his name while learning to read, speak and write his new homeland's language in an effort to hurry the process of becoming a Japanese citizen. It paid off when his citizenship became official in the summer of 2007, but the process of choosing a new last name -- as he described to the Los Angeles Times in 2008 -- is the real fun part of the story.

Though balking at first because he considered the name effeminate, he settled on Sakuragi, which translates to cherry blossom tree. "The cherry blossoms here are a big deal," he says. "Also, Sakuragi is the name of a famous comic character who just happens to play basketball, so the younger people thought that's why I took it -- and I didn't bother to say it wasn't. I just went along with it."

An intrepid new Twitter follower of your's truly explains that the last name is "for hopes and positive feels" and, like Henderson Sakuragi, we'll just go along with that.

For those interested in how the basketball player formerly known as J.R. Henderson is faring in the non-name department, the 36-year-old is averaging a double-double of 13 points and 11.2 rebounds for his 1-3 team on the brink of a second-round elimination.

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