‘The Japanese Steph Curry’ plays home games in Lincoln, Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. — Keisei Tominaga was hungry. Sitting in a room with his teammates for a video shoot before the season, the Japanese guard for the Nebraska Cornhuskers saw a crowd of students gathered outside and knew he’d be hounded if he left to find something to eat.

“He was not able to walk one second without somebody coming by and asking for a selfie,” said Luca Virgilio, Nebraska’s director of basketball strategies and business operations. “So he asked a manager, ‘Hey, can you grab food for me from across the hall? Because if I have to walk there, I’m never going to get there.'”

Since his arrival in Lincoln in 2021, Tominaga has been a rock star off the court, and a talented player on it. He made 40% of his 3-point attempts last season and helped the Cornhuskers end the 2022-23 season on a positive note by winning six of eight before the Big Ten tournament. He’s averaging 11.0 PPG this campaign for an undefeated Cornhuskers squad after missing the first two games with an ankle injury.

Tominaga is the most recognizable player on the roster in the state capital which features three times more cows (6.8 million) than people (1.9 million). He’s also popular 6,117 miles away in his hometown of Moriyama Nagoya Aichi, Japan, where he’s known as “The Japanese Steph Curry.” He avoids trips to the mall there because of the incessant requests for photos.

So much so that he has emerged, along with Los Angeles Lakers forward Rui Hachimura and Phoenix Suns forward Yuta Watanabe, as one of the faces of the sport in the archipelago nation of 126 million. In October, Japanese media flew to Lincoln for an exhibition game.

For Japan, Tominaga averaged 6.9 PPG — the leading mark — for the 3-on-3 squad in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Three months ago, he starred on the national team in the FIBA World Cup. The team finished first among Asian countries in the standings and qualified for the Olympics for the first time since 1976 (as the host nation of the 2020 Games, Japan automatically qualified). Their 80-71 win over Cape Verde — in which Tominaga scored 22 points — was the most-watched program in Japan in 2023, per FIBA, which also noted that 23% of the Tokyo metro area tuned in.

“When he had [the ankle injury], it was news in Japan,” said Miwa Shirasaka, a Lincoln resident from Japan. “A lot of people watched the FIBA World Cup. He’s one of the famous players [in Japan].”

But Tominaga is at Nebraska with a mission: Become the fourth player in NBA history born in Japan — after Yuta Tabuse, Hachimura and Watanabe — and, in doing so, impact the next generation of basketball players in his home country. He left Japan for America because he believed the basketball competition would offer him the best chance to maximize his talent and eventually play at the next level.

Over the summer, he entered the NBA draft and worked out for the Indiana Pacers before choosing to return to Lincoln. And he’ll represent Japan at the 2024 Olympics next summer. He still faces some challenges to his dream, however — Tominaga isn’t currently listed on any reputable 2024 NBA draft boards, and the NBA isn’t known for drafting 6-foot-2, 175-pound shooters who don’t play above the rim. Scoot Henderson (No. 2) was the only player 6-2 or smaller to be selected in the 2023 draft.

Tominaga knows those odds.

“I just wanted to know, ‘What do I need to improve?’ and get feedback from the NBA teams so I can get better,'” Tominaga said of the experience with the Pacers. “I was thinking about going to play in Japan but I feel like this is my best opportunity to play in the NBA. Playing in the Big Ten is a big deal. That’s [partially] why I decided to come back here. [The NBA] is my dream.”

When he came to America in 2019 — he began his career at Ranger College, a junior college in Ranger, Texas — he couldn’t speak English. He felt alone and questioned his decision. Since arriving in Lincoln, however, Tominaga is comfortable and thriving. He’s developed a community, and found a second home.

“It’s cool because I don’t feel like I came from Japan,” Tominaga said. “I have a whole family here. I’m having fun here. I feel amazing. I feel I made a great decision coming here.”



Nebraska’s Tominaga does the Steph look-away 3

Nebraska guard Keisei Tominaga doesn’t watch his 3-pointer go in.

NEBRASKA HEAD COACH Fred Hoiberg can tell the difference between a streaky shooter and real one. He pays attention to a player’s form and release. He notes where a player stands and the way he leaps off the floor before he takes a shot. Consistency matters to him.

Those obsessive traits turned Hoiberg into an NBA guard who shot 39.6% from beyond the arc — the No. 62 mark in NBA history — over 10 seasons. When Tominaga arrived on campus, Hoiberg wanted to know if the player who’d made 48% of his 3-pointers at Ranger could recreate the same consistency at the Division I level.

So he grabbed a ball and threw it to Tominaga in the left corner of the court.

Tominaga made 26 consecutive 3s.

“I was like, ‘All right, this kid can shoot,'” Hoiberg said. “Without a warmup shot, without anything, he just went right to the left corner. I threw him a ball and he just started making shot after shot after shot.”

It began on a toy hoop in his house. Well, a few of them.

Tominaga’s mother, Hitomi, played professional basketball in Japan, while his father, Hiroyuki, was a 6-11 center for the national team and other Japanese pro clubs for a decade. Keisei may not have inherited the genetics of his towering father, but he developed a love for basketball through them — and from watching DVDs of Kobe Bryant. So to satisfy their son’s growing passion, his parents put toy hoops throughout their house.

“[They were in] every single room,” Tominaga said. “Even in the bathroom, I had a toy hoop. I feel like I always had a ball with me. Even if I went somewhere shopping, in the car, I had a ball.”

Eventually, he was recognized as a prospect to watch. When Steph Curry toured Japan in 2017, Tominaga was picked to be an ambassador for Japanese basketball at one of the NBA star’s youth camps.

“He’s my favorite player,” Tominaga said. “My idol. It was a super cool experience for me. I was really nervous. We had a translator. He told me, ‘There are probably going to be some hard times in America but just keep doing what you’re doing.’ He said, ‘Never look down and keep doing your thing.’ It was amazing.”

On the other side of the world, Virgilio — Nebraska’s director of basketball strategies and business operations — was working at St. John’s in 2019 when he heard about Tominaga from an international contact who had once told him about Hachimura. Virgilio had passed on the chance to pursue Hachimura, and didn’t want to lose another potential star. He immediately searched for Tominaga’s clips on YouTube and discovered a scorer who could hit 3-pointers from five, six, seven feet behind the line.

When he joined the Cornhuskers staff in May 2019, he convinced Hoiberg to pursue Tominaga. But the staff had two questions. The first: Did Tominaga have the grades to play Division I basketball? The answer at the time was no, which is why he began his career at Ranger College.

“That’s something I kind of regret,” Tominaga said. “I wish I’d studied harder.”

The second question: Lincoln? The staff wondered if a lukewarm experience in a city with a small Japanese population or a disappointing performance on the court might compel him to return home, where he could capitalize on his popularity and make money in Japan’s pro leagues.

When Tominaga first arrived in America, he couldn’t understand his teammates and coaches — he could only communicate through his jump shots and basketball instincts.

“At the beginning, I had no English skills, so I had to show them with my basketball skills,” Tominaga said. “I just need to prove I can shoot the ball. My first day, I was shy. I couldn’t speak English. I just had to stand there.”

For his interview with ESPN earlier this month, however, Tominaga spoke English without the use of a translator. It has been a long journey to this point for Tominaga, who picked up the language gradually through academic courses but also via social interactions. A teammate at Ranger College taught him American phrases and slang words.

He also would learn by watching American TV shows and movies and use Japanese closed captions. “Coach Carter” was his favorite. In recent years, conversations with his girlfriend, Hannah Fitzpatrick, have helped. A barrage of interviews with American media have, too, he said.

“That’s how I started having confidence to just speak English,” he said.

Tominaga was in his first year at Ranger when Hoiberg’s staff extended an offer. They told his family that they would support him as a basketball player and student, and he soon committed to joining the Cornhuskers after graduating from junior college.

Four years later, he’s one of the top players in the Big Ten — he connected on 62% of his shots inside the arc last season, earned honorable-mention All-Big Ten honors after averaging double figures. And those around him believe he’ll fight to get a shot in the NBA one day after he’s done at Nebraska, too. They’re also advocating on his behalf.

“Any NBA executive that walks into our gym, when they walk out of here, they talk to me about Keisei,” Hoiberg said. “‘What’s his ceiling? Can he be an NBA player?’ [I say], ‘Why not? Why can’t he?’ The way he shoots it. The way he moves without the ball. … You need guys who can knock down 3-point shots and that’s what he can do. Is there any chance he can make it to the NBA? Absolutely there is.”

THE MORNING AFTER his team’s win over Florida A&M Rattlers on Nov. 9, Tominaga walked into Shokunin, a sushi restaurant in downtown Lincoln.

During the game, he’d stayed on the bench due to an ankle injury, cheering for his teammates. When it ended, young boys and girls tried to burst through the rails for high-fives and fist-bumps from Tominaga. He got to as many of them as he could.

Shokunin, in contrast, offers a temporary solace. Here, he is not swarmed by fans, and the calm is a relief.

“I feel like people here, they just want to take selfies,” he said. “In Japan, people start recording. I definitely like people talking to me and taking a picture. I don’t like taking a video.”

Today, Lincoln is not just the next step on his basketball journey. It’s a place full of connections for Tominaga.

When he came to Lincoln, he met a group of Japanese students who became friends as he adjusted to life in Nebraska. He was introduced to golf, and through it met more members of the Japanese community in the city. According to friends, he’s a notable chef and loves to cook traditional Japanese dishes.

It all makes him feel connected to home but his comfort also comes from the relationships he’s forged, such as his friendship with Sam Hoiberg, son of the head coach and Tominaga’s teammate and roommate. They battle in Super MarioKart on Nintendo Switch and play golf together.

Hoiberg’s family lives on a golf course, which gives Tominaga easy access to the sport he adores. It’s not unusual for him to leave practice and immediately go to a driving range or join friends at Top Golf in Omaha. He likes to challenge teammates and coaches, too.

“It’s fun to, you know, play and then it’s a fun feeling to get better every time, you know?” Tominaga said. “I never play good with Sam. I don’t know why. I always hit like 100 or something with him.”

He’s not just a Japanese basketball player but a college student who mainly hangs out with his teammates, friends and Fitzpatrick — a Nebraska native who is taking Japanese courses five days a week with the anticipation that she and Tominaga will one day return to Japan.

Those connections have made Tominaga more comfortable in Lincoln, where he’s known to challenge teammates to one-on-one matchups after practice or cruise around campus with friends in his new SUV. But Sam Hoiberg wonders if he’s perhaps too comfortable. Tominaga is not afraid to talk trash to his opponents, teammates and anyone else who wants to compete.

“Even playing video games against him or playing pool, he’s the cockiest dude when he’s [winning],” Sam said. “The worst is when he’ll laugh at you and make it known that he’s winning.”

Tominaga said he returned to Nebraska for another year because of the bonds and the opportunity to mature as a player.

He believes he can always play professional basketball in Japan, but his goal is to earn a chance in the NBA.

The Japanese community in Nebraska is small but the less than 5,000 who live in Lincoln and follow Tominaga’s career enjoy the opportunity.

“He’s very popular,” said Shirasaka, the Japanese resident who attends Nebraska games to support Tominaga. “Everybody in Lincoln, Nebraska, knows him. I’m so proud of him.”

As she talked about Tominaga at the Asian Community and Cultural Center in Lincoln, her 6-year-old son, Asahi, jumped around in the back of the room. He had an imaginary basketball in his hand and pretended to dribble and take jump shots on a basketball hoop only he could see.

He’s the tallest kid in his class, his mother said, adding that she recently bought a toy hoop to put in the house for him. He loves to shoot, and was thrilled to take a picture with Tominaga after a Nebraska game last season. “He’s a good shooter,” the boy, who wears Nebraska gear to school, said of Tominaga.

Four years ago, Tominaga battled feelings of isolation as he tried to adapt to a new culture and a new country.

“It’s a lot different now,” Tominaga said. “It’s a whole different life, different story. When I went to Ranger College, I played pickup and people would never pass to me because they didn’t know who I was. That’s how I started basketball in America. Now, people recognize me and it’s a cool thing.”

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