They lived in a Japanese town called Fukui, the days passing in a cozy little home that one might describe as a traditional uchi — the native word for house.
There were paper-thin walls and no central heating. There was an American son who would remove his shoes before entering. There was a single mother, shepherding her preteen child before the real world — basketball, high school and college decisions — beckoned back home in Portland, Ore. On cold winter nights, as darkness fell in Fukui, Shelley and Landen Lucas would bundle up in sweats, layering on the clothes before they crawled under the covers to go to bed.
“It’s just a different life,” says Landen Lucas, now a Kansas sophomore forward.
Nearly a decade later, Shelley Lucas concedes that this was probably not the most normal thing for an American family to do. What kind of mother uproots her 11-year-old son, sells nearly everything, finds a job in a coastal Japanese town, and spends a year immersed in a foreign culture?
Oftentimes, Shelley says, the townspeople in Fukui were the most curious of all. Why were these Americans suddenly living in this relatively remote part of the country?
This question came all the time. In the weeks after they arrived in Japan, for instance, Shelley took her son to enroll in the local public school. Landen was entering the sixth grade, and Shelley wanted her son to experience a typical Japanese education.
“The headmaster of the school really thought I was crazy,” Shelley says. “She just looked at me, like: ‘What are you doing?’”
In moments like these, Shelley would simply smile and try to remain as polite and respectful as possible. Then she would instruct her 11-year-old son to explain the particulars.
Landen would explain that he spent the first four years of his life in Japan, while his father, Richard, played professional basketball in Tokyo. He would explain that, after moving back to Portland, Shelley and Richard had enrolled him in a Japanese language elementary school. And he would explain why they had come back, choosing this small town located just off the Sea of Japan.
“He was the one that was fluent in Japanese,” Shelley says. “And, yes, he got admitted to the school.”
On a late evening in early February, Shelley Lucas is on the telephone. She is talking about her family’s time in Japan, and how it shaped her son — how those nights in Fukui left a lasting imprint. But before we go forward, Shelley admits that there was one other reason for choosing to take Landen to Japan during his sixth-grade year.
Part of it was basketball.
“I knew that there was a chance he’d get pretty serious about basketball as he got older,” Shelley says. “So I figured: If we were going to go back to Japan, we should do it before he got to high school.”
In this case, her maternal instincts were correct. A decade after spending a year in Fukui, Landen Lucas is a redshirt sophomore at KU, a blue-collar forward on a top-10 team. Lucas is averaging just 2.4 points and 11.4 minutes per game, earning sporadic playing time as the Jayhawks steamroll toward an 11th straight Big 12 championship.
For now, Lucas’ on-court impact has been limited. But it’s safe to say that few college big men come as worldly as Lucas.
How many forwards can tell stories about their early years in Asia or their days in a Japanese language school in Portland?
How many big men played their sixth-grade season in a place like Fukui, leading his school team to a regional championship while growing 6 inches in one year?
How many future college players worked on their game in unheated Japanese gyms, taking piano lessons on the side because the team manager in Fukui insisted that each player learn a musical instrument?
How American kids, period, spent their childhood trying to master three different Japanese alphabets — kanji, hiragana, katakana — in a classroom full of Japanese faces?
“He was a full-fledged Japanese public-school student,” Shelley says.
In some ways, Landen says, it felt natural. Japanese was his first language, the one he was exposed to most as an infant. He dreamed in Japanese. He watched cartoons in Japanese. He learned about the world in Japanese. While the family was still living in Tokyo in the mid 1990s — during Richard’s four-year stay in the Japanese pro ranks — Richard and Shelley took a young Landen to a local park. Before long, he began playing with a group of other children.
“You could hear him saying words in Japanese,” Richard says. “He was already learning the language.”
Richard Lucas never wanted his son to feel pressured into playing basketball. This is something many parents say, of course. It’s something that Richard and Shelley truly felt.
Richard had been a standout at Oregon during 1987-91 — a hyper-athletic big man who always played larger than his 6-foot-7 frame. After college, he played professionally in Europe and Japan before taking on a brief coaching career. Perhaps Landen would someday choose basketball, Richard thought, but it would always be his decision.
So Richard and Shelley — who split up after the family moved back to Portland — agreed to sign up Landen for everything: baseball, roller hockey, track, soccer, basically anything with a ball or stick. Then one day, Shelley came home with an idea. She wanted Landen to try ballet, and she had a convincing story to make it happen.
“She told me Michael Jordan took ballet,” Landen says. “And I desperately wanted to become Michael Jordan at the time. My favorite movie was ‘Space Jam.’ So I did.”
They also found a rare school in Portland that offered a Japanese-only education. In certain ways, Shelley says, the school was an easy decision. Landen had a solid base of Japanese while living his first four years in Tokyo, and Shelley wanted to make sure he didn’t lose it.
“For me, that’s almost all I knew,” Landen says. “It was my first language, so coming back (to Portland), it kind of felt natural to me.”
Nearly a decade after leaving Fukui, Landen Lucas still removes his shoes when he enters his on-campus apartment at the Jayhawker Towers. Of all the customs he learned in Japan, this is one he rarely forgets.
There are others, though. In the Japanese language, there is a saying — “Ganbatte” — that roughly translates in English to “Do your best.” Landen wants to make it clear that the American work ethic is not so different than the one he learned in Japan. But there is something different about observing it in another culture — the way his Japanese teammates spent so many hours in the basketball gym; the way his classmates would lug around backpacks with so many large books that it looked as if the bags could have belonged to a graduate student.
“They always kind of live by the motto of always trying hard,” Landen says. “That’s something that we do in America, too, but they really emphasize it. Growing up in school and stuff, you always see everybody give it their all and maximize their full potential in whatever they do.”
As he says this, Lucas turns the corner in a hallway adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse. He is headed for an afternoon weights session, and the idea of being even a minute late doesn’t feel right. He walks quickly, slipping on a mesh practice jersey. In a few minutes, KU strength coach Andrea Hudy will bark out some instructions and Lucas will be sweating with the rest of his teammates.
The instructions will be in English, and he might as well be a million miles away from Fukui. But on certain days, in certain moments, the lessons and memories — Ganbatte! — don’t feel so far away.
“Whenever you get a chance to experience a different culture,” Landen says, “you get a chance to appreciate the things that we have here.”