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Coach Mikiko Hagiwara is seen in a 2012 file photo. STB-1 / WIKIMIEDIA COMMONS

This feature on former WNBA player Mikiko Hagiwara, a dynamic shooting guard, appeared in The Rafu Shimpo (Los Angeles’ English-Japanese Daily News) on June 23, 1998).

‘Queen of Shooting Ready for Encore in WNBA

After a year of adjustments, former WJBL star Mikiko Hagiwara says she’s ready to make an impact with the Phoenix Mercury

By Ed M. Odeven
PHOENIX — Mikiko Hagiwara made basketball history not once, but twice last season.

The sharpshooter affectionately known as “Oh” — or “Queen of Shooting” — became the first Japanese player to appear in the WNBA. She began her American career during the WNBA’s inaugural season last year. She also has the dubious distinction of being the first player in league history to be traded.

The Sacramento Monarchs, who selected Hagiwara 14th overall, sent her to the Phoenix Mercury on July 31, 1997, for “future considerations.”

It’s a future that Hagiwara considers bright.

After a season of adjustments, the 29-year-old shooting guard is eager to show that she has what it takes to be a solid contributor in this league.

“It’s more relaxed for me because I understand terminology and all of what’s going on between players,” said Hagiwara through an interpreter, Kyoko Takahashi. “(Now), I’m able to pick up more.”

Hagiwara’s understanding of the game has never been in question. However, for the four-time scoring champ of the Women’s Japan Basketball League, her performance last season was less than satisfactory (29 percent on field goals and 28 percent on 3-point shots).

“I will try to make a better percentage, and I’ll try my best,” she said after last Wednesday’s practice at America West Arena. “I believe it’ll be an even better year for me this year, because I’m more accustomed to what’s going on.”

Another factor that could help Hagiwara achieve greater success this season is the confidence she gained at the Women’s World Championships earlier this month in Germany, including a dazzling display of shooting in a 95-89 loss to eventual gold medalist USA. Hagiwara scored 10 of her team-high 22 points in the first six minutes of the contest.

That confidence remains with Hagiwara, despite an early-season setback — tendinitis in her left knee, which forced her to miss the first three games of the season. Hagiwara was scheduled to make her 1998 debut against the visiting Charlotte Sting on Sunday.

“I got a lot of confidence out of the World Championships,” said Hagiwara, who averaged 28.8 points per game for Japan Energy in 1995-96. “So, I’m now going into this season with confidence and hopefully able to keep that performance level high and get good results.”

Phoenix management certainly hopes that.

Shooting accuracy is the glaring weakness of the reigning Western Conference champions. The team shot just 37.3 percent from the field last season.

If Hagiwara can emulate her basketball hero, Hortencia Oliva, Phoenix will take a  major note in the right direction.

“That’s the kind of player I’d like to be,” said Hagiwara of the Brazilian star who retired last year. “She’s very tough and focused on her drives and how she maneuvers. That’s the kind of level I’d like to be.”

Of course, she admires Michael Jordan. But more than anything, Hagiwara said she’s happy to have this golden opportunity.

“When I came here to the United States for the first time and then went back to Japan, I saw other players that I played with in the league in Japan, the Fukushima native said. “The fans and other players made me feel special as a role model, as a basketball player.”

Hagiwara’s teammates also believe she deserves to be competing against the best players in the world.

“She’s a great player but didn’t have the opportunity to show that (in Sacramento),” Phoenix guard Michelle Timms said last season.

“She quick and you have to respect her.”

Just wait and see.

Editor’s note: Hagiwara served as the Japan women’s national team coach at the 2017 FIBA Under-19 Women’s Basketball World Cup. She has also guided the Waseda University women’s team.