Bob Turner, Hideki Matsuyama
Courtesy Bob Turner

Tokyo Olympics an end goal for the American behind Japan sports icons

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — As the Tokyo Olympics near and interest generates in Japanese sports culture, an American father and son offer unique perspectives as right-hand men for two of Japan’s greatest athletes.

Bob Turner and his son, Allen, made a business out of acclimating Japan’s sports stars to life in the United States.

For decades, Japanese athletes could easily become icons without leaving the archipelago. Now, most of their time is spent in other countries, and mostly the U.S.

“It’s not just about becoming No. 1 in Japan,” said Bob Turner, a 66-year-old who has managed Japan’s best golfers on the PGA Tour for the last three decades, plus juggled work with Ichiro Suzuki in his early Seattle Mariners years. “They want to participate on the world stage and do very well at it.”

Bob was born in Washington, played high school golf in Northern California and attended BYU before a two-year Mormon mission to Japan, arriving in Sapporo in October 1972, eight months after it hosted the Winter Games.

Bob met his wife, Hiroko, and found his calling working for a sports promotion company, recruiting athletes for golf, tennis and marathon events. The list included Sam Snead, Billy Casper and Seve Ballesteros.

The family, including then-10-year-old Allen and his younger sister, Mika, moved back to the U.S. in 1987.

“It was time for them to be introduced to American culture,” Bob said.

Bob continued his work with golfers, but his role shifted from recruiting the world’s best to Japan to welcoming Japan’s best to the PGA Tour.

In 1993, Bob got a call from Naomichi “Joe” Ozaki, who decided to start playing regularly on the PGA Tour after winning 21 times on the Japan Golf Tour.

For the next eight years, Bob took care of Ozaki’s logistics and traveled with him to every tournament in the U.S. When Ozaki left the tour in 2001, Bob performed similar duties for Japan’s star of the 2000s, Shigeki Maruyama, for eight years.  

Bob has traveled with Japan’s current No. 1, Hideki Matsuyama, since he came over to the PGA Tour in 2013.

But the Turners are best known for their work in baseball. For five years, Bob managed baseball and golf clients. The biggest name on that list, and the biggest name in all Japanese sports, was Ichiro.

That’s where Allen comes in. In 1999, a Seattle Mariners scout whom Allen knew from high school ball said the team was going to sign Japanese pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki. The club was looking for somebody to not only interpret and translate but also handle some on-field baseball work.

Allen, who began playing baseball in Japan at age 5, interviewed and got the job. The next season, the Mariners signed Ichiro. Allen and/or Bob has spent most of the last 19 MLB seasons with Ichiro. Allen moved with him to New York and Miami before last year’s return to Seattle and this year’s retirement. Ichiro still works for the Mariners’ front office, so Allen remains with the team, too.

Baseball will be played at the Olympics next year for the first time since 2008, but Ichiro has ruled out interest in suiting up.

MLB players are not expected to take part (they weren’t in baseball’s previous iteration, either). Japan’s roster should be made up of stars from the Nippon Professional league, perhaps the world’s second-best.

“That’s come up a lot, and [Ichiro] always, always says he respects Olympics,” Allen said, “but he believes that the Olympics should be for the amateurs, and the best amateurs go and participate in the Games.”

“Respect” and “honor” are two words that Americans often associate with Japanese sports.

Recall images of Japanese spectators at the FIFA World Cup cleaning up after themselves with trash bags in the stands.

In 2008, healthy Japanese gymnast Koki Sakamoto was withdrawn from the Olympic all-around final to give the spot to team leader Hiroyuki Tomita, who had scored five hundredths fewer in qualifying.

“[Sakomoto], I’m sure, felt it was the honorable thing to do,” NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett said at the time, noting his knowledge of Japanese sports from being coached by Makoto Sakamoto at UCLA.

“It’s a vertical society in Japan, where America is more horizontal where everyone is on the same level,” Bob said. “In Japan, it’s not that anybody’s better than anybody else, but if someone is older than you, you show them respect.”

That manifested in Allen’s childhood baseball days, when he woke up before dawn, rode his bike to the local diamond, practiced for an hour and then went to school.

The Turners lived near venerable Koshien Stadium, which opened a decade after Wrigley Field and hosts the national high school championship.

Allen idolized Randy Bass, a first baseman who bounced around five MLB clubs in six seasons before moving to the Hanshin Tigers, where he set the league’s single-season batting-average record (.389) that Ichiro could not break.

In 1985, Bass was one home run from tying the legendary Sadaharu Oh’s single-season record of 55 going into the last game. Facing a club managed by Oh, Bass reportedly drew four walks in five plate appearances

“To have somebody from America be that successful and a superstar was pretty cool,” Allen said. “Me being an American in Japan, even though I didn’t speak English, I looked different. The kids knew I was different.”

They were taught the same.

“[Allen] learned from a young age that you don’t argue with an umpire,” Bob said. “At the beginning of the game, you’ll take off your batting helmet when you go up to bat and tip it to the umpire. You don’t spit on the field. When your cleats touch the playing field, you’re running. You’re not walking or loafing. It’s dishonoring the game if you did. At the end of the game, you line up and everyone bows to the other team, you take off your hat and you say nice game. You do the same to the umpire.”

Ichiro, too, was brought up that way.

“Ichiro never threw a bat or threw a glove because it disrespects the maker of that bat or the maker of that glove that took a long time,” Bob said. “Not to say that Japan sports culture is better than here in the United States. I’m just saying that the culture of honor and respect is more demanded, I think, in Japan.”

Bob still goes back to Japan about twice a year. Since Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Games in 2013, he’s noticed storefronts with Olympic merchandise.

A 2018 survey published by Central Research Services in Japan showed that its most popular athletes were, in order, baseball players Shohei Ohtani and Ichiro, followed by figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu and tennis player Kei Nishikori.

A Japanese media research and analysis company recently reported that Hanyu received the most hours of major TV coverage of any athlete in 2018. He was followed by Ohtani, tennis player Naomi Osaka and then three more PyeongChang Olympic medalists.

“The Tokyo [1964] Olympics, Sapporo [1972], Nagano [1998], you still see documentaries about those,” Bob said. “More so than here in the United States, the Olympics are revered in Japan.”

Bob has never been to an Olympics. Neither has his primary client, Matsuyama, Japan’s top-ranked golfer the last five years who withdrew ahead of Rio due to Zika virus concerns. Matsuyama is planning on going to Tokyo. Bob is, too.

“That’s the finish line for me, hopefully,” Bob said.

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U.S. Olympic 3×3 basketball qualifying teams named with former NBA player, WNBA stars

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Former NBA player Robbie Hummel and WNBA stars lead U.S. Olympic qualifying teams in the new Olympic event of 3×3 basketball.

The four-man and four-woman teams will compete in a global qualifier in India in March, each favored to grab one of three available Olympic berths per gender for the U.S.

Hummel, who unretired to become world champion in 3×3, is joined on the U.S. Olympic men’s qualifying team by Team Princeton teammates Canyon Barry and Kareem Maddox, plus Dominique Jones, who has played with Team Harlem. Team Princeton is guided by an investment firm CEO who once beat Michael Jordan one-on-one.

Last year, Hummel, Maddox and Barry (one of Rick Barry‘s sons) were part of a team that won the world title.

The U.S. women’s 3×3 qualifying roster is made up of WNBA stars Napheesa Collier, Stefanie DolsonAllisha Gray and Kelsey Plum. The U.S.’ top-ranked 3×3 player, as of last month, is Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu, who can’t play internationally this spring as she is in the thick of the NCAA season.

Olympic teams will not necessarily be made up of players from the qualifying tournament.

If the U.S. qualifies for Tokyo, it will then choose its roster(s) in a similar fashion to its traditional basketball teams — via selection committee. It’s unlikely active NBA players will be eligible.

Like with the qualifying tournament, two of the four Olympic players must be ranked in the top 10 among Americans in FIBA 3×3 rankings (as of a May 22 cutoff).

In 3×3, games last 10 minutes, or until one team reaches 21 points. Games are played on a half-court with a 12-second shot clock, and offense immediately turns to defense after a team scores.

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First U.S. sailors qualify for Olympics; gold medalist misses on tiebreak

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The first five members of the U.S. Olympic sailing team were finalized this past weekend. The last American sailor to win an Olympic title missed on a tiebreaker.

Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea (49er FX), Anna Weis and Riley Gibbs (Nacra 17) and Charlie Buckingham (Laser) qualified after world championships competition concluded in Australia. The U.S. Olympic roster across all sports is now at 43 qualified athletes.

The closest race for a U.S. Olympic spot came in 49er FX. Roble and Shea edged Paris Henken and 2008 Olympic champion Anna Tobias on a tiebreak. Roble and Shea, both first-time Olympic qualifiers, won Saturday’s medal race and earned an overall bronze medal.

That put the two U.S. duos in a tie in Olympic qualifying — combining placements from the 2019 and 2020 Championships, according to TeamUSA.org. The tiebreak went to Roble and Shea for having the better finish at this year’s worlds.

Tobias, a 37-year-old who won the individual 2008 Olympic Laser Radial as Anna Tunnicliffe, came out of retirement in a bid for a third Olympics. She left competitive sailing in 2014, took up CrossFit competitions and returned to crew for Henken more than two years ago.

“We are very sad and upset,” was posted on Tobias’ Instagram, “but we wish them [Roble and Shea] the best of luck.”

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