July 19, 2022
‘A phenomenal, phenomenal human being’: How the Mystics celebrate Rui Machida
'When she comes into the game, it's energy'
WASHINGTON – “Rui Day! Shoutout to Rui Day.”
Washington Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough grinned broadly as she said that, responding to a question about Sunday being the team’s Japanese Heritage Day in honor of Japanese guard Rui Machida. A smile crept across center/forward Elizabeth Williams’ face, too, as she listened to the question, and she laughed when Walker-Kimbrough renamed the event after Machida.
Just before Williams got her turn to answer, forward/guard Elena Delle Donne entered the room. “Come in!” Williams said. “We’re just talking about how much we love Rui!”
“Rui’s so cute,” Delle Donne responded.
The players lit up when they were asked about Machida, but the whole day felt festive, as the Mystics earned a 70-57 win over the Minnesota Lynx on the strength of their defense. They held the Lynx to 33.3% shooting from the field and forced 16 turnovers that they converted into 17 points. Machida, a 5’4 point guard and Olympic silver medalist who is in her first WNBA season, played 12:28 off the bench and had two assists, a steal and a rebound.
“I’m so excited and so glad the Mystics organization is trying to make this [Japanese Heritage Day] happen,” Machida told The Next on Saturday through her translator, Micky Takei.
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The Mystics co-hosted Japanese Heritage Day with the Embassy of Japan to celebrate not only Machida, but also “the unshakable friendship between Japan and the United States,” according to a team press release. The 2020 Tokyo Olympic torch was on display, there was a Japanese wishing wall for fans to make wishes, and traditional Japanese drummers performed at halftime. The Mystics announced a sellout, though a few seats remained vacant, and the thundersticks they handed out only made it more obvious that the crowd was hanging on — and cheering for — Machida’s every move.
“Fan favorites,” Mystics assistant coach Shelley Patterson told The Next pregame, comparing Machida to former WNBA All-Star Renee Montgomery and current New York Liberty guard/forward DiDi Richards. “Whenever they step on the floor, people wanted to see them play. So Rui’s the same way. [When] she gets on the floor, people are excited.”
For Machida, Japanese Heritage Day was another game for her to prove herself in the WNBA and a chance to further the intercontinental bonds she has forged in just the past three months. For her teammates, it was an opportunity to celebrate someone who brightens their days with her contagious joy.
Machida, a native of Hokkaido, Japan, signed with the Mystics in February to play overseas for the first time in her career. The 29-year-old has played for the Fujitsu RedWave in the Women’s Japan Basketball League (WJBL) since 2011 and the Japanese national team since 2015, and the Mystics had scouted her for several years before the timing aligned to bring her to the United States. She had a breakout performance at the Tokyo Olympics, averaging 7.2 points and 12.5 assists per game in Tokyo and setting the Olympic single-game assists record (18) in the semifinals.
“In terms of her pace and her will and what she’s good at, we didn’t have many players that could stay in front of her,” Team USA assistant coach and Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said on Sunday of Machida’s performance at the Olympics. “She’s really fast and she makes her decisions to pass very, very quickly … She was a big reason why we played [Japan] in the gold medal game.”
Machida has captivated her country with her move to the United States. About 80 media members from around the world participated in her introductory press conference, and Japanese reporters flooded the Mystics with media requests early in the season. While playing in Japan, Machida had sometimes spoken to reporters as a team captain, but the interest in her has ballooned. More Japanese fans are watching the WNBA now, too, she said, despite the 13-hour time difference between Tokyo and Washington.
Though Machida hasn’t stuffed the stat sheet so far, she has made a strong first impression. She learned the Mystics’ plays within a few days, prompting associate head coach Eric Thibault to tell The Next, “That’s a hard thing to find … You can’t put a price on intelligence.” Since then, Machida has also met with teammates such as Delle Donne individually, with help from Takei, to learn their tendencies and continue to build chemistry.
“Any time I have one of those meetings with her, she does everything [we talk about] and more,” Delle Donne said. “So she’s a sponge for sure.”
Machida might also be the fastest player in the WNBA, as starting point guard Natasha Cloud declared in May. “I didn’t realize that she was that quick,” Dallas head coach Vickie Johnson said days later. Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller also quipped about Machida, “I don’t know another word that describes fast, so ‘fast.’”
Through 27 games, Machida is averaging 1.9 points on 29.4% shooting, along with 2.4 assists and 1.2 rebounds in 13.0 minutes per game. She made four of eight shots for a career-high nine points against the Las Vegas Aces on May 10 and had a career-high nine assists against the Chicago Sky on June 5. She is quickly learning, Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said, what passes she can and can’t make against WNBA defenders and how she can play to her strengths in this league.
“When she comes into the game, it’s energy,” Patterson said. “I mean, our pace is better. … When Rui [comes in] and you got Shatori in the game, those guys fly. … [And Rui’s] energy defensively, it’s contagious. So when she’s out pressuring the ball and she’s getting through screens and she’s applying pressure, it helps everybody else.”
Patterson has worked with Machida to eliminate a hitch in her shot, and both Patterson and Thibault said that Machida shoots well in practice. She arrives early and stays late to get extra shots up. The issue in games sometimes is, as Cloud put it, that the Mystics need Machida “to look at the basket just for a half a second” instead of always wanting to pass.
“When you’re a pass-first player, sometimes you pass up open shots or you are thinking about passing while you should be shooting or are shooting, and I think that takes away sometimes from shooting ability,” Thibault said on Saturday.
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A day later, Thibault was pleased with Machida’s two 3-point attempts in the first quarter. Both missed, but those shots alone nearly exceeded her 2.5 field goal attempts per game this season. “I’d like to invite the [Japanese] ambassador [to the United States] to come back every day if that’s what it takes,” he joked. “But … I think there’s some breakthroughs in that regard.”
There have also been breakthroughs off the court as Machida acclimates to a new team, league and country. The schedule itself has been a huge adjustment: In the WJBL, the games were less frequent; there was only one time zone, so no jet lag; and games were played on neutral sites rather than home courts. There is also the language barrier, which Machida said is especially challenging because she is used to emphasizing communication with her RedWave and national team teammates.
“I need to read their facial expression and then what they do on the court and off the court, and then … I try and understand,” Machida said of her process in Washington. She also has Takei by her side most of the time and has picked up a few English words, including “thank you,” “screen” and “T-shirt.” She can call plays in English and recognizes the sounds of other vocabulary her teammates use on the court. And off the court, when she doesn’t understand, she often just smiles and laughs, which puts everyone at ease.
During warmups on Sunday, the Mystics had nine Machidas, with nearly every player wearing a red T-shirt with Machida’s name and number on the front for their pregame shooting. “I didn’t want to take her shirt off,” Walker-Kimbrough said.
“I wish they had her face on it, though, to be honest,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen told The Next, “because I’m going to wear this out [in public].”
One of the few players who didn’t wear the T-shirt was Machida herself. She told The Next through Takei that she was “embarrassed a little bit” by the attention but also “so glad” to see her teammates in the shirts. “I couldn’t wear that!” she demurred. Guard Ariel Atkins told The Next that, when Machida found out that the team would wear the shirts, “She just laughed, in her Rui way.”
Machida checked into the game at the first-quarter media timeout, as a message from the Japanese ambassador, Koji Tomita, played on the video board. He wore a red Machida jersey over his collared shirt, and the crowd roared when he mentioned Machida.
Machida attempted her first 3-pointer exactly a minute after she checked in. The crowd murmured as she let it fly, then let out an audible, “Oh!” of disappointment when the shot hit the back iron. The fans got what they wanted less than two minutes later, when Machida bounced a crisp pass from near the top of the key to Williams in the post for a layup.
In the second half, Machida had some big plays defensively, too. In the third quarter, she contested a fast-break layup from Minnesota guard Kayla McBride, who is seven inches taller, and forced a miss. And in the fourth quarter, she and Atkins combined to force a turnover and Machida led the fast break, finding Walker-Kimbrough in stride for a layup.
After the final buzzer, the Mystics held their customary players-only huddle at midcourt. But this time, they pushed Machida to the center, and everyone bowed. It was a sign of respect for all that Machida brings to the team.
It was clear before Sunday that Machida’s teammates generally like her, and they often marvel at how her passes find them in traffic or when they’re not expecting to be open. But the way the Mystics embraced her on Sunday showed just how much they adore her and underscored the contributions she makes to the team that aren’t always visible publicly.
“Rui is a phenomenal, phenomenal human being,” Cloud said pregame. “… She comes in every day with a smile, she supports us, she loves us. And that is definitely vice versa as well.”
“No matter what, she comes in with a smile on her face regardless,” Walker-Kimbrough added postgame. “I don’t know if she’s ever had a bad day. If she has, she’s never showed it. I’ve never seen it. And so just to see her — no matter what I’m going through, if I see her smiling, it kind of picks me up … So being able to celebrate her is, I’m proud of it.”
“I really enjoy having her on the team,” Atkins said postgame. “… She is a good teammate, always straight off the bench when timeouts come. If she’s in the game, she’s pointing, telling us, even though we don’t necessarily understand. But we’re trying to figure out hand signals and different things like that.
“But my biggest thing is … there’s not a day I’ve seen Rui not smiling in the gym. And so, to me, that’s just super encouraging because I know it’s a hard situation, especially with the language barrier, and she comes in every day just willing to work.”
None of those players heard each other’s answers, but Machida’s daily dose of joy has made them all feel similarly uplifted and supported. They’ve tried to do the same for Machida. Cloud has learned some Japanese words, including “hello,” “good night” and “thank you.” She and Delle Donne celebrated a two-point, three-assist game from Machida on July 6 with high fives, thumbs up and a pat on the head.
“I was trying to hit her back and smile with her to show her like, it was good,” Delle Donne said postgame. “… I was just telling her, she played with such great pace and also really good poise. She was finding cutters. She sped the game up. She attacked when she needed to and she played — she had huge minutes. So I don’t know if she got all that. But I think she understood.”
Hines-Allen, who claimed Machida as her “bestie” nearly right away this season, told The Next in May that she always wants to help new Mystics players settle in and empathizes with Machida’s situation from her own experience playing overseas.
“I’m gonna be that person where it makes it easier for them to be themselves, whatever that may be,” Hines-Allen said. “So, yeah, for me, I just make sure everyone feels comfortable and open. This is a family environment since I got here. That’s how I was welcomed into this team. So, long as I’m here, I’m going to do my part.”
“[Hines-Allen is often] trying to make conversation with me, and also she tried to make conversation without [my] translator, so … she’s been so helpful,” Machida said on Saturday. “At the same time, whenever I go back to the bench [in games], she’ll try to come up to me and just talk about the game and just cheer me up [and tell me] that’s what I should be doing. And so she’s been such a helpful person so far.”
Atkins said that Hines-Allen communicates the best with Machida of anyone on the team, and there was a funny moment in the postgame locker room on Sunday when Hines-Allen was looking for Machida. She shouted, “Bestie!” and Machida poked her head around the corner, appearing out of nowhere.
“The fact that she just answered you blows my mind,” Atkins said.
Hines-Allen was paging Machida to demonstrate some hand clapping games they enjoy. Hines-Allen taught Machida a game called “slide,” and Machida taught Hines-Allen a game called “rhythm.”
The Mystics have also embraced Machida and Japanese culture with food. Atkins and wing Alysha Clark both gave several Japanese snacks a thumbs up, and Atkins and Hines-Allen are lobbying to have dinner with Machida and Takei.
“I’ve been asking Micky to take us all to dinner. They always go to traditional Japanese restaurants when we travel, and so I’m a huge fan of Asian cuisine, period,” Atkins said. “And so I really want to try actual traditional Japanese in the U.S. I know a few places in D.C., but I don’t know them when we travel. So I’m still waiting on them to invite me.”
(Informed of Atkins’ comments, Takei laughed and told The Next that he thought there might be an opportunity when the team travels to Dallas in late July.)
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In large part due to her teammates’ support, Machida is feeling at home in Washington. “[I’m] not homesick at all,” she said. “… I’m so grateful [to be] a part of a team and … enjoying it extremely.”
The Mystics will continue to support Machida as she completes her rookie season, and they need her to be impactful off the bench as they push for a top-four playoff seed and a championship. But Sunday’s Japanese Heritage Day revealed the impact she has already had in the WNBA as a ray of sunshine in the locker room, a fan favorite and an inspiration for countless Japanese fans to follow the league.
“I love it,” Cloud said of Japanese Heritage Day. “I think that Rui should be celebrated. I think her culture … should be celebrated. And … having Rui away from her family, away from her loved ones, away from her culture and having her here with us, I think it’s only right that we celebrate her and make her know that this is her family too here, that she’ll always have a home here with us.”
The Next’s Natalie Heavren contributed additional reporting for this story.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.