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How An American Athlete Found Home In Japan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

How did an American kid from Texas end up representing Japan on the global stage? It was a journey to an adopted home. NPR's Leila Fadel sent us this report about a native Texan playing 3-on-3 basketball under the Japanese flag at the Olympics.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In Japan, they call him Downtown Ira Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Ira Brown from downtown - Downtown Ira Brown.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: You got it.

FADEL: His 3-pointers got him the nickname. For years, he's played professional basketball in Japan. But he never dreamed he'd get to the Olympic stage...

IRA BROWN: Not in a million years (laughter). Not in a million years.

FADEL: ...Let alone play for his chosen country in a sport that debuted at the Olympics for the first time in Tokyo - 10-minute basketball games with three players on each team competing to 21, a lot like the pickup games you'd play in your driveway. Brown grew up in Corsicana, Texas, population just under 24,000. He got his athletic prowess from his parents.

BROWN: My dad was a football player, and my mom was really, really, really good at softball. I mean, my mom could have done anything.

FADEL: But they struggled with addiction. His grandmother took care of him, his siblings and many of his cousins.

BROWN: It was about 15 to 17 people living in a three-bedroom home. We would have to, like, pretty much all try to sleep in one bed. And, like, eventually, I made a little small closet my room, had, like, a little lock, a key that I would lock my stuff in.

FADEL: She worked to give them all they needed.

BROWN: She was an absolute warrior with what she had. But I mean, she was just a one-woman wrecking crew.

FADEL: To make ends meet, he and his sister picked pecans to sell to local grocery stores when he was about 10. They'd collect cans, sometimes swipe candy from the local convenience store to hock at school.

BROWN: It was just a struggle to live because, often times, we just didn't have water. We didn't have electricity.

FADEL: So a thirst for stability, safety, bubbled inside him. As a child, he didn't have aspirations of basketball stardom. He dreamt of the wealth he didn't have.

BROWN: I always told myself, like, I want to be the first millionaire in my family. That was - always been my drive and my motivation.

FADEL: And sports became his path. At first, it was baseball, a sport that brought him to his adoptive parents, both baseball coaches. At 18, he got drafted into the minor leagues. Then he went on to play basketball at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. Basketball, it showed him the world - Mexico, Argentina, the Philippines and, finally, Japan. It was here he says he felt like he'd found the safety he'd been searching for.

BROWN: I didn't want to go anywhere else in the world. And Japan was pretty much home for me, so I've stayed over here since.

FADEL: He married, naturalized and, later, divorced.

BROWN: It's an honor to be Japanese.

FADEL: And this year, the Japanese Olympic team, including Brown, is redefining what it means to be Japanese, sparking conversations about race and identity. Among the Japanese Olympians is tennis star Naomi Osaka. She's a mixed-race Japanese icon and the face of the Tokyo Games who lit the cauldron during the opening ceremony. Her image graces posters across the capital with the word new in English and generation or world in Japanese. On the 5-on-5 basketball team is Washington Wizard player Rui Hachimura.

BROWN: I feel like we're breaking barriers, especially with how they treat mixed kids. Before it's like - especially when I first got over here, they treated mixed kids very poorly. And then once Naomi Osaka and Rui started having a lot of success, all the sudden the narrative started changing.

FADEL: Today, Latvia took the gold in 3-on-3 basketball. Japan's team, assembled just three days before the Games, didn't make it past the quarterfinals.

BROWN: I just enjoyed the experience. Knowing that I gave it my all and I came short, I'm OK with that.

FADEL: Brown says he's still amazed he got to the Olympics.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOODS' "WHERE I MET YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.