Reflections of Fate, Luck and Hard Work From Waimanalo-native-turned-Olympian Hugh Hogland

Kristen Nemoto Jay

Hugh Hogland (known as Hugh Watanabe on the team), a professional basketball player for the Ryukyu Golden Kings. (Photo courtesy of the Ryukyu Golden Kings)

From the moment he put on his jacket to get ready for the Tokyo Olympic’s 2021 opening ceremony, Hugh Hogland felt as if he was living outside of his body. Silly candid photos taken with his Japan basketball teammates didn’t help bring his emotions back to Earth; the day, the lead up, was both the start and end of his destined yet unusual Olympic journey.

“It was surreal,” said Hogland in a Zoom interview. “I can’t describe to you the amount of goosebumps I got just from right before you walk in. It was crazy.”

The walk, according to Hogland, was a long one from the bus drop-off to where the opening ceremony was located. Rui Hachimura, one of Japan’s chosen flagbearers and men’s basketball star player, led the country’s best athletes and made the fans roar louder with pride. As Hogland and his teammates made their debut into the ceremony, he noticed many of his teammates and other athletes veer to the left where the TV cameras were all set up. Hogland didn’t have the temptation to walk left into the limelight, he didn’t want to miss a moment.

“It was weird to see 75% of the athletes go that way and then 25% go the other way,” said Hogland. “I thought, ‘man, this is such a moment’ why would you want to make it about being on TV rather than about yourself and all your hard work. You should enjoy the moment. So I did.”

Standing at 6 feet 9 inches tall, and one of the tallest players of the basketball team, Hogland stood out a head taller anyway than most of the country’s athletes. But all that didn’t matter to him. What mattered is that he was there, experiencing every second of the walk out into the Olympic stadium. A dream that only a miniscule amount of the world’s best athletes get to experience in their lifetime. For many moments prior to that particular one consisted of a series of events that had to unfold one by one — in a perfectly timed sequence — in order for Hogland’s convoluted Olympic journey to even exist.

It all began in 1985. Hogland’s mother, Sanae Watanabe, was a guest contestant on Japan’s version of the “Family Feud” game show. In the final round, the Watanabe family won a free trip to Hawai‘i. Sanae Watanabe went on that trip and met a young man named Matt Hogland. The two fell in love, got married, had two children and named their eldest son Hugh. Hogland grew up in Waimänalo and became a star basketball player at ‘Iolani School. Although he refers to Hawai‘i as his home, Hogland and his family traveled back and forth to Japan so much when he was growing up that Watanabe arranged for her two sons to have Japan passports. 

Hogland’s mother, Sanae Watanabe (holding up peace signs), on the Japanese version of the game show Family Feud in 1985. (Photo courtesy of the Hogland family)

While a senior at ‘Iolani School, Hogland received a scholarship to play basketball at the University of California at Santa Barbara. As Hogland also had two state basketball championships on his resume, and was about to play Division 1 basketball on the Mainland, Watanabe felt the need to send a heads up email to the technical director of the Japan Basketball Association Tomoya Higashino that her son, who had dual citizenship, was a rising talent in the states. 

However, as quickly as things moved in Hogland’s favor after high school, it started to unravel. After his coach for UCSB got fired, Hogland scrambled to get picked up by the University of Portland. While he redshirted most of his career there, Hogland found out from his UP teammate, who was from Japan, that a man known as the “Crusher” (Higashino) asked about him. Hogland put two and two together and then began training and pursuing for the coveted spot on the Japanese Senior National Team. For the next two summers, Hogland returned with no luck to a team that would barely let him play. It was a time of reflection, for sure, as Hawai‘i’s former High School Player of the Year admits he wasn’t used to rejection. 

“Growing up in Hawai‘i gave me a lot of confidence being the main guy on any team that I was a part of because of my size,” said Hogland with a smile. “College taught me a lot about what it means to be humble.”

After two years of hardly any ball time at UP, Hogland left his senior year to play for the University of California at Davis. March 2, 2020 was the date Hogland signed (and posted on his Instagram page) to play with the Aggies. His debut, although uneventful with a total of six points in two games, didn’t “project where I think he’s going to be,” said Coach Jim Les in an article for the Wall Street Journal. 

“UC Davis was the team that changed my mindset and changed the way I had my work ethic,” said Hogland who attributes a lot of his “luck” of his Olympic journey to the Aggies. “A lot of things broke my way to even put me in the position to compete for this team.”

Despite his basketball statistics, Hogland had potential that the Crusher, and many others, saw as a raw talent for the game. When news outlets started reporting the postponement of the Olympics, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hogland thought this was his final shot to get in shape and finally make the Japan men’s basketball team. Hogland trained at home, even with a cast on his hand from a broken thumb injury, he went all out, using jugs of water as his weights and Koko Head Crater for conditioning.

His hard work would pay off as this past July he made it through many rounds of cuts to be a part of the 12-man roster. Although they didn’t do well, coming in 11 out of 12 teams competing, Hogland soaked in every moment, including quarantining in his hotel room with food runners and Amazon Japan as his only outsource to the world. His continued determination in his craft also led him to sign his first professional contract with the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the Japan first division this past June.

“I think I’m really lucky from before I was even born,” said Hogland, who goes by his mother’s maiden name, Watanabe, on the Olympic and now Ryukyu Golden Kings team. “Yeah it’s incredibly hard but I still consider myself lucky. I had to get knocked down so many times and then have to get back up.”

Hogland’s only regret is quitting on others and himself when things got hard in college. If he could take it back, he said he would and then redo it “100%.” He’s grateful though for the life lessons that he’s learned along the way. That’s something he still feels lucky to have experienced, which he believes steered him to where he is today.

“I have a lot of people to thank such as my family and folks at UC Davis,” said Hogland. “They all made me want to change. Want to be better. For them, I’m grateful.”

What’s next on Hogland’s new basketball venture is to be the best player on the Ryukyu Golden Kings team and then hopefully try out and make the men’s Olympic basketball team again. 

Japan’s Olympic athletes make their debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic ceremony. (©Reuters/Mike Blake)

“Whatever happens, happens,” said Hogland. “I have off the court goals too like learning how to be disciplined in my finances. I want my money to work for me, which is the reason I chose my finance major.”

If he could offer a piece of advice to young men and women athletes in Hawai‘i who dream of making it to the Olympics, Hogland said it’s all about setting yourself up for success and then being confident with the path you’ve chosen.

“I think you can have confidence with the little things each day such as making your bed, it doesn’t even have to be in your sport,” said Hogland. “That’s how you can build confidence, if you don’t lie to yourself. Don’t be afraid of anything and seek help when you need it.”

It’s those little tweaks here and there is what made Hogland successful in his own right despite his path not adhering to what was his original “plan.” Not a traditional way of “making it” to the Olympics but it’s his own. Unlike the 75% who moved to the left for the cameras during the opening of the Olympic’s ceremony, Hogland still continues to walk on his own path.

“I just went forward,” said Hogland with a laugh. “I knew I was tall enough anyways so if I went like this (raises his arms up), I would have been seen. I was OK with anything. I was just so excited to be there.”  


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