Kengo Maeda, a young freestyle basketballer, is a three-time Japanese university champion, and he has been bringing his A game on a global scale. He’s going to tell us about how he ended up playing freestyle basketball, his encounter with his mentors, the fascination and difficulties of freestyle basketball, his future ambitions and his take on culture.
Devoting yourself to what you love
──Could you tell us about what you’re doing?
I’ve been playing freestyle basketball for 7 years now. Freestyle basketball isn’t like basketball we usually see where we shoot balls into hoops for points. It’s like putting on a showーyou put on music and dance to it, and compete against others.
──When did you start playing freestyle basketball?
I belonged to the basketball club in my junior high and high school, but I started playing street basketball when I quit the club in high school temporarily. Street basketball is a bit different from what I’m doing right now. We play on a court and we shoot balls, but it’s main focus is on pulling off tricks, trying to deceive the opponent. Freestyle basketball caught my attention when I first saw a video while I was looking for videos related to street basketball.
──So quitting basketball club brought you where you are right now.
Well, actually, I rejoined and then quit the club several times. But I didn’t quit after all. That’s because I thought I needed to comprehend basketball to perform well in freestyle basketball. Basketball has history and I thought I needed to take it seriously. It’s not like I was trying to run away from it. But obviously, the coach was angry. I don’t remember how many times I apologized to him.
──Is it important to be able to play basketball even for street basketball players?
Yeah. People with no experience in basketball are simply just not as good compared to those who do have experience in basketball. People with no experience don’t dribble properly, which is essential to freestyle basketball so that’s also one of the reasons why I didn’t quit the club. Besides, if I hadn’t been playing basketball back then, I would’ve never come across freestyle basketball.
──Were there any huge turning points or encounterings throughout your freestyle basketball career?
Well, obviously, the first time I saw freestyle basketball. But what impacted me more was my father’s death. That was when I decided to pursue my dreams and to do what I like the most. I wanted to immerse myself into something, and freestyle basketball just happened to be that. Since then, I have never gone a day without practicing. And that’s also when I started to take basketball seriously. 。
In terms of encounterings, lee. and ZiNEZ a.k.a KAMIKAZE are like my two mentors. Lee. is a forerunner of freestyle basketball who features in Hollywood films. I’ve learned valuable lessons and manners from him besides freestyle basketball. He’s really strict, but I’m really grateful that he taught me, despite my young age, that reality is tough, especially because I grew up in a spoiled environment. He’s like a father to me. ZiNEZ is more like an older brother. I practice with him three times a week and we have sleepovers. So having been able to meet these two people have had a huge impact on me.
──How exactly did freestyle basketball start?
There’s no way we can find out. We never know which stream of history is valid, but I heard that it started out on the courts of street basketball. People with huge physiques and people who were talented were the only ones allowed in the game, and those who didn’t meet those requirements weren’t allowed in. But there was a guy by the sidelines who showed off tricks, and that’s how he managed to get himself in the game. But no one knows the truth. The only thing we know is that it’s been around for a few decades. I think it derives from several places and established its style it has now. But it’s still an evolving culture.
──Are there any styles to freestyle basketball?
Some guys just spin the ball. And there’s no limit to how many balls you can use, so some guys juggle several balls. I basically use one ball and do whatever I feel like that matches the music. And trending styles differ by time. Dynamic moves used to be trending in the past so I adopted bboy’s power moves. But right now, moves with “flow” are trending.
──So you try to absorb moves from other scenes.
When judging how good someone is, freestyle basketball doesn’t have a hard and fast criteria. It’s more about how much that person can pull off a cool stunt. Of course, you need the basics, like dribbling and rolling balls from the tip of your hand to your shoulder, but basically you can do whatever you want. That’s why I like to dive into videos of people dancing and analyze them. And I also go to parkour gyms to practice acrobatics.
──What do you think is intriguing about freestyle basketball?
That’s a hard question… It’s something completely different from the basketball you knowーwe just roll the balls and there’s no shooting to it. But that’s what amused me. We don’t play by the “rules”, but rather we try to revolt against conventional styles. I think that’s what really fascinates people.
── understand that you like this sport a lot, but do you ever come to the point where you want to just quit what you’re doing?
I came in first in a competition for college students when I was a freshman. And I said I would be number one for four consecutives years. I was able to keep that promise till my junior year, but I failed in my fourth. I was devastated. I even thought of quitting. And you know how there are times when something’s not fun even though you like it? I was fortunate enough to receive opportunities to put on shows, but that kind of occupied a big part of what I was doing. And I just didn’t know if that was what I wanted to do. As long as I’m making a living out of this, I don’t want to bore the audience with the same old tricks. I have to keep trying new things. This is what I like about freestyle basketball, but at the same time it’s what I don’t like about it.
My life is a gamble
──Tell us about what you want to accomplish in the future.
I don’t have a huge goal or anything, but I would like to meet ballers around the world and show freestyle basketball to those who have never seen it. I think freestyle basketball is a great way to communicate with people so I would like more people to get involved in it. The population is small and I want to perform in many places. And I also want to make freestyle basketball a “thing” in Japan. Ballers older than me have put a lot of effort in making appearances on the media and have given lessons to the younger generations. On the other hand, staying in the freestyle basketball community doesn’t make you much money and doesn’t get you famous. But the community taught me a lot of things so now I want to contribute to it. And I also want to hold competitions for younger generations so that they have the chance of earning the spotlight. Anyways, I’m probably going to be chasing my freestyle basketball career till I die. It’s not like I feel obligated to do it, but I just think it’s going to be around me for my life.
──Do you have any fear of placing yourself in an evolving culture?
Don’t you think that’s exciting? There’s no excitement to the years and decades ahead of you with everything that’s already fixed. I would want to remain a boy. My life’s like a gamble.
──What does “culture” mean to you?
If you replace the word with freestyle basketball, I would say “family”. There’s no one who plays freestyle basketball that is mean. We all get along. People in the scene are family to me.
Devoting yourself to what you love seems easy at first, but it takes significant dedication and determination. And that is what Kengo has. Kengo aspires to invigorate the community in which he grew up, and to convey the joy of freestyle basketball to more people. It’s rather hard to look away from someone like him who has solid techniques, a unique style, and the ambition to take on challenges.
Interview by Tsukasa Yorozuya
Written by Taiki Tsujimoto / Nozomi Tanaka
Translated by Tempei Kobayashi