Q+A: Hiroshi “Morris” Morioka


by Ed Odeven / @ed_odeven

TOKYO — A dribbling basketball is, well, the heartbeat of the game. But by taking a solo journey from Tokyo to Sendai, Hiroshi “Morris” Morioka (@Morritter)

demonstrated the heart of Japan pulsates from every individual, big or small.

Humble and caring, Morioka reminded people that everyone can make a difference to lift people’s spirits in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, disasters.

With a basketball in his hands, the former Oklahoma City Thunder events and entertainment department employee for the 2010-11 season, embarked on a unique journey, a dribbling odyssey, a heart-warming project that reminded people about the joy of giving back to to others.

Before his 11-day January journey, Morioka was quoted as saying, “I’m dribbling 370 kilometers from Tokyo to Sendai as part of the charity project aiming to raise money to send 300 basketballs to junior high schools in Miyagi Prefecture. My goal is to raise enough money for 100 basketballs. Well, as can be expected, in parts of Tohoku area, it hasn’t been possible for children to participate in sports clubs and activities. I hope that this project can help them to enjoy sports again.”

Mission accomplished.

After his project concluded, Morioka told SLAM, “The project will donate about $6,307 to the (Basketball Japan League’s) Sendai 89ers. They have a charity program (Kids Smile Project) to donate 300 basketballs to junior high school in Miyagi Prefecture. I think more than 130 balls will be donated through the project.”

This month, Morioka is gearing up for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs baseball season. He currently works for the Philadelphia Phillies’ top minor league affiliate as a marketing analyst.

A year after the Great East Japan Earthquake, sports teams and the games themselves, are playing an important role in giving people joy at a time when so much uncertainty, anxiety and difficulties are constant themes in the Tohoku region, where nearly 20,000 people died from the earthquake and tsunami.

SLAM: What was the feeling like for you to arrive in Sendai and be involved in a project that was meant to raise people’s spirits? [He arrived at Sendai City Gymnasium on Jan. 29, in time for the Sendai 89ers-Chiba Jets game.]

Morioka: When I got there, I was not expecting [the attention]. There were a lot of people there waiting for me. Honestly, I don’t think it’s for me but a lot of people cheered me up. I think it was more than 200 people outside the arena … more than two hours before the game, before the gates opened [at noon]. I got there at 11:40 a.m. (Traveling that day, from a train station in southern Sendai, he arrived at Sendai station, making a zigzag crossing across the city before getting to the gym.)

SLAM: What did people say to you at the gym that day, and did their support bring you joy?

Morioka: Of course. I was happy because I didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect so many people waiting for me; also Tohoku-area media, especially (showed up).

[Reporter’s note: This included reporters from one TV station, three newspapers and a Tokyo-based radio station, Shibuya FM, in the heart of the city’s fashion and entertainment district. Shibuya FM, which has followers worldwide via live Internet streaming, covered Morioka’s entire journey with reporters along the way.]

I tried to promote myself. I sent emails to every radio station, every TV station, every newspaper, magazine in the Tokyo area, and nationally.

SLAM: How did Shibuya FM report on your trip?

Morioka: During the trip, during the dribble [marathon], they called me. Basically, it was at 11 a.m., they called me and said, ‘What’s up? Where are you right now?’ A typical exchange began with, ‘Where are you right now? How’s the weather? How do you feel?’

SLAM: Did the radio conversations help you cope with loneliness on the road?

Morioka: That was really helpful for me. Cars beeped the horn. That was helpful, too. It was like, hey, one horn encouraged me, and talking to people on the phone is really helpful.

SLAM: Tell us about past long-distance basketball-dribbling projects you’ve done.

Morioka: In 2006, at age 22, from Kyoto to Okayama city, that is my hometown—200 kilometers, or 130 miles. Then [months later], Kyoto to Tokyo was 310 miles, 500 kilometers, when I was in college, also the same year. Both of these basketball-dribbling trips were designed to raise awareness to basketball in general, and the NBA specifically in Japan.

SLAM: How long did those trips take?

Morioka: I spent six days going from Kyoto to Okayama; the other trip to Tokyo was 13 days.

SLAM: Solo trips?

Morioka: Sometimes people came to see, walking with me for only a couple hours. But this time it was basically just myself.

SLAM: On your latest trip, what were the roads like that you traveled on?

Morioka: National roads because I don’t want to miss my way.

SLAM: What was an average day like on the road—from what time to what time?

Morioka: This time it was winter season, so from sunrise to sunset is really short, so this time it’s basically 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. From Kyoto to Tokyo, it was spring season, so I did 7 to 6.

SLAM: Did you stop to eat during these days or were you walking and eating?

Morioka: It depended on the day, especially this time from here to Sendai I really wanted to talk to people. That’s the main point, so I didn’t want to use time for eating, so I was basically walking and chewing, biting some chocolate. … At breakfast, I ate a lot and at dinner I ate a lot, but lunch was just eating some small snack on the road.

SLAM: Who did you want to speak to along the trip? And where?

Morioka: People who wanted to cheer me up. People who read my article from the newspaper, people watch TV or see Twitter or Facebook who like my project, or people who want to do something through basketball.

I tried to take pictures with the ball. Then I was updating the picture or some comment every hour on Twitter or Facebook. I was trying to … but basically it depended on the day; if my fingers were really cold … it’s really tough to handle it.

SLAM: Do you think your project gets other people to think about things they can do to help society?

Morioka: I think that a lot of people who watched my projects, I think, they were inspired or encouraged by my project: ‘Oh, I want to do something because he did this, for the Tohoku area or whatever. I want to do something, I need to do something.’ … I want to encourage people, especially people who live in the Tohoku area. …

I got power from them, I got energy from them, people who cheered me up. That’s the best part of the trip, conversation with people.

SLAM: How widespread was attention to your project?

Morioka: I would say people who read my blog are from more than 20 countries; Japanese people who live overseas, they watch my blog, I’m pretty sure.

SLAM: How much dribbling did you actually do on this journey? Did you take breaks?

Morioka: Basically, it just depended on the day, if some people talked to me. Sometimes it’s like one minute, sometimes it’s like one hour. Sometimes people invited me to have lunch. But basically I don’t want to say no.

If the road was really snowy or slippery, I didn’t want to dribble because I didn’t want to lose my ball and I didn’t want to make an accident.

SLAM: Any problems with police?

Morioka: Nope. They never said [I was a nuisance]. But if they said something to me, I could definitely explain my project, they would understand it. I could show them the newspaper. Because of that, the newspaper is really powerful to make people understand it.

SLAM: Did you count the total number of steps you took for this trip?

Morioka: 520,000 steps I did. For dribbling, the Tohoku area had a lot of snow, so I couldn’t (always) dribble, but I would say, one dribble per three steps, so maybe 100,000, but it could be traveling (he laughs).

SLAM: As a child, did you always take a big interest in traveling and basketball?

Morioka: My parents like to go on a family trip by bicycle, go somewhere that’s a long distance.

I did not have any bad feeling to do a long trip by myself. … I like that.

[He says he began playing on a hoop team at age 10, splitting time over the years at point guard and shooting guard.]

During Morioka’s college days at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, he heard about one of sport apparel and equipment company Mizuno’s sponsored projects: French ultra-runner Serge Girard’s five-continent trek.

“I was so impressed,” he remembers. “He was running from Paris to Tokyo … and at that time I thought I really want to do something like him.”

“That is why I started long-distance dribbling. If I did the same thing as him, probably I will be able to encourage a lot of people because I was encouraged by him.”

SLAM: Did the Oklahoma City Thunder sponsor your latest project?

Morioka: No. I wanted to get some autographed jerseys, I wanted to so some Internet auction, but they couldn’t make it. But it was really a short time … a tight schedule.

SLAM: What did your family think about this project?

Morioka: Encouragement and pride. They sent me flowers from Okayama city to Sendai. My sister works with a flower company in Hiroshima.

SLAM: How was your schedule for the project set up?

Morioka: When I saw the Sendai schedule for home games in January, there were only four home games. … It was really cold in early January and I was so nervous but the chance was only one time because I have to basically get money now.

[He was working a temporary job as a translator, and after it ended in mid-January, the time was right to take this trip, he explained.]

SLAM: Switching topics, who were some of your favorite NBA players?

Morioka: Reggie Miller. When he came to OKC while working for TNT, the game was against Orlando, he was really close. … I wanted to talk to him. I loved his play; he was the best player in my life. Someday I really want to talk to him. That’s my dream.

SLAM: Other future goals?

Morioka: In the future, I’d like to manage a Japanese pro basketball team, be a president or a GM.

SLAM: Other dreams?

Morioka: I have a couple of goals. One of them is dribbling from Los Angeles to New York City; working with the NBA team as a full-time position; selected as a Hall of Famer; and that Japanese national basketball team beats the U.S. national team [laughs].