It wasn’t until sixth or seventh grade that Ryuji Aoki was considered fluent in English.
He had moved to the United States from a suburb of Tokyo in second grade and it took him a good four to five years to be able to communicate like a native.
Luckily, Aoki, Stevenson’s 3-point specialist and second-leading scorer, spoke the language of basketball.
Just before Aoki left Japan, he discovered basketball, at recess on the school playground.
“I saw the older kids playing basketball and I wanted to play,” said Aoki, a senior who provided instant offense off the bench last year during Stevenson’s Class 4A state championship run. “I fell in love with it right away.”
Aoki’s father Moto took a job in the Chicago area at a pharmaceutical company. By design, the family picked out a house in Buffalo Grove that had a basketball hoop in the driveway.
“It was pretty intimidating going to school when we first moved here. The other kids just stared at me. They had never seen a kid from a different country before and I couldn’t speak any English,” Aoki said. “I could say ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘hello,’ and ‘thank you.’ That was it.
“But I had that basketball hoop at my house and I had kids over every day to shoot hoops and that really helped. I made friends and I got better at basketball. I played all the time. I’m probably better at basketball because I grew up here instead of in Japan.”
Now, Aoki fits into conversations with other American teenagers as well as he fits into the north suburban high school basketball landscape.
Aoki averages about 14 points per game, is Stevenson’s leading 3-point shooter and is a big reason Stevenson won its fourth straight North Suburban Conference championship on Wednesday night.
In the title game at North Chicago, Aoki got the Patriots off on the right foot. He scored 11 of his 16 points in the first half, and finished with four 3-pointers on the game. He had a season-high five 3-pointers in a game against Neuqua Valley earlier this season.
“His bread and butter is definitely his 3-point shooting,” Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said of Aoki. “He’s got a quick trigger and a nice rise and he doesn’t flinch if he’s defended.
“Ryuji’s just worked his tail off. He’s the one who comes to practice early and stays late and watches a ton of film. People tell me that he’s always at the Y with his mom (Yuko) rebounding for him. He’s put a lot of time in on his shot. And over the off-season, he also put a lot of time into the rest of his game. He’s worked to diversify his game and now he’s really good at getting to the basket.”
Speaking of diversity, Aoki believes that in some ways, he’s playing for a bigger cause than simply the success of his team. He wants to highlight the diversity on the varsity roster, which includes three Asians.
“There’s this stereotype that Asians aren’t into basketball and that prevents a lot of Asians from even trying,” Aoki said. “I know a lot of my Asian friends focus on academics. They think that’s everything. But I think you can do both. I just love basketball and couldn’t imagine my life without basketball, too.
“I wanted to be different. I wanted to leave a legacy like that. A lot of my Asian friends started coming to games and I think they have a lot of fun. I think they kind of look up to me a little.”
Aoki has his own cheering section of friends, a group of about 10 classmates who come to most home games. At road games, it’s a different story.
“When we’re on the road in a hostile environment, I’ve had people make fun of me,” Aoki said. “I hear that I’m a ‘Jeremy Lin wannabe,’ I hear jokes about Asian eyes, that people like me don’t play basketball. I make sure to listen to it. I keep it in the back of my head when I need motivation. That’s what I come back to.
“That kind of stuff just gives me a chip on my shoulder. It makes me want to prove people wrong.”
Aoki isn’t ready to back down from that yet. He wants to keep opening eyes by keeping his basketball career going.
He’s getting interest from plenty of Division III and some Division II colleges. He’s narrowed down his list to some serious academic institutions, such as MIT, Case Western, Illinois Tech and Rose-Hulman.
Aoki, who would like to major in biomedical engineering, is taking three advanced placement courses at Stevenson and is a straight-A student. Except…
“Except for the B+ I get in English,” Aoki said with a laugh. “Every year, I always get a B+ in English.”
Aoki, whose English is apparently fluent but perhaps not always perfect, is content to continue living in the United States for the foreseeable future. But he could imagine living in Japan again someday.
He misses his family and friends there, Japanese television and especially the food.
“I’ve been pretty Americanized. I like Chipotle and Popeyes and a lot of things here,” Aoki said. “But I love Japanese food. My mom’s ‘Shabu Shabu’ is the best. It’s like this meat and veggie dish where the soup is soy sauce-based and then you eat it with sesame seed oil seasoning and noodles.
“My mom will make Japanese food every night.”
Some of the best meals in the Aoki household are around the holidays. Aoki celebrates both American and Japanese holidays. The latest holiday the family celebrated was earlier in February.
“It’s this Japanese holiday about wishes, where you hope to the moon that one of your dreams will come true,” Aoki said.
Aoki wished for the same thing this year that he did last year.
“It was that we get to Peoria and win state,” Aoki said. “I would love to do that again. I’m trying to put everything on the line to help us get there again. I want people to remember who I was and what I tried to do for our team.”
It’s a goal that people can appreciate…in any language.
Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw