Meet the Texas native who beat the odds and is trying to help Japan's 3x3 basketball team do the same

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TOKYO — Most of the athletes at the Tokyo Olympics have aspired to this specific moment their whole lives, representing their country in a sport they’ve dedicated countless hours to, often from a very young age.

But growing up in Corsicana, Texas, Ira Brown never dreamt of being an Olympian. And he couldn’t possibly have imagined playing 3x3 basketball for Team Japan. His dream was both bigger and simpler: to be the first millionaire in his family. Or, at least, to find a way to parlay his innate physical abilities into a better life for himself than what he experienced growing up.

“I've always felt that I was a very special athlete,” Brown, who will turn 39 next month, told Yahoo Sports during a video call from the Olympic village. “Obviously, I've just taken a longer road to get here.”

Brown said that both his birth parents were addicted to drugs. As a young kid he bounced between his relatives' overcrowded homes.

“At times we didn't have running water, we didn't have electricity,” he said. “Just a very, very poor family.”

There were gang fights and house fires and so many rats and roaches that the vermin were practically part of the family. Brown slept on a pile of clothes in the closet. But he was good at baseball — yes, baseball — and his coach, Earl Mitchell, not only noticed the talent, he noticed a young boy in desperation.

Ira Brown is hoping to help lead Japan to an unexpected 3x3 basketball Olympic gold medal. (REUTERS/Andrew Boyers)
Ira Brown is hoping to help lead Japan to an unexpected 3x3 basketball Olympic gold medal. (REUTERS/Andrew Boyers)

Brown met Earl and Susan Mitchell when he was 7 years old. They had moved to Corsicana after serving as missionaries in Indonesian and Haiti.

“I would go to their house on the weekends,” Brown said. “They would wash my clothes for me and take me shopping, because I didn’t have a lot growing up.”

They took him to baseball games and church, and when the Mitchells moved a few hours south to Conroe, Texas, Brown started spending holidays with them. A few years later, when he was 14, he moved in with them permanently. Eventually, the Mitchells adopted Brown.

“It took me a little bit to be able to say 'mom' and 'dad' to my adoptive parents, but I felt like it was natural because they were,” Brown said. “They were my mom and dad. They took care of me as if I was their own.”

Baseball was still his first sport. The Kansas City Royals drafted Brown out of high school as a pitcher, but five years later he had a 4.49 ERA between the lower minors and indy league and needed a new plan.

So he switched to basketball, playing two years at Phoenix College and two years at Gonzaga, where he averaged fewer than 10 minutes a game.

From there the long road took him to Mexico, as part of a traveling basketball camp that finally earned him his first paycheck as professional athlete: $2,500 on a Mexican basketball team. Next he went to Argentina, and then onto the Philippines and finally, about a decade ago, Brown followed an opportunity to make $5,000 on the Toyama Grouses to Japan.

The boy who had grown up sleeping on dirty clothes loved how clean it was. How respectful everyone was.

In Japan, Brown, a 6-foot-4 Black man from Texas, felt at home. Which is not to say that he blended in.

“Some people, you could see that they’ve never seen a Black man before, especially in the countryside,” Brown said. “Some of them would kind of shy away, pull away from me.”

So he committed himself to learning the language, adapting to the culture. He studied his teammates' mannerisms. He made friends, married a woman who kept him in the country long term. By the time they divorced in 2017, “Japan was pretty much home for me,” he said.

“So I haven't had any desire to go anywhere else.”

During that time, Brown became a Japanese citizen. And now, when strangers are surprised that someone who looks like him speaks the language so well, he tells them he has a Japanese passport.

“And they get even more shocked.”

The Japanese passport that Brown could have never predicted as a kid in Corsicana was also his ticket to the Olympics.

There’s no American men's 3x3 basketball team in Tokyo, because they failed to qualify. But the host country is automatically entered in every event. So even though Japan ranks 11th in FIBA's global 3x3 men's rankings, Brown and teammates Ryuto Yasuoka, Keisei Tominaga, and Tomoya Ochiai are in the eight-team field as the basketball variation makes its Olympic debut. They’re long shots, but they split their first two games on the opening day of the tournament.

Brown’s birth mom passed away eight years ago from cancer. His birth father, though, has gotten clean.

“He's actually doing really well for himself, so I’m very happy about that,” Brown said.

A few years ago he reconnected with his whole biological family. Now he goes back to Corsicana every summer. They have a weekly bible study together. And even though his games are in the middle of their night, everyone back home — or the place where he was born, anyway — has been watching and sending messages of encouragement.

Asked what he hopes his family thinks when they see him compete on the international stage, Brown says he doesn’t have to hope anything.

“I know what they're thinking,” he said. “They're very, very proud of me.”

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