When Damian Eargle was growing up in Youngstown, he used to watch Japanese cartoons like “Dragon Ball Z,” “One Piece” and “Bleach” and tell his brothers, “One day I’m going to take you guys over there so we can see what it’s like.”
“It’s funny thinking back on that because now I get the chance,” Eargle said.
Eargle, a former standout with Youngstown State and Warren Harding, recently signed to play basketball with Aomori Watts of the Basketball Japan League, which plays from October to May. The city is located about eight hours north of Tokyo and about 6,500 miles from Youngstown, but has two things going for it:
It has a professional basketball team.
That team is willing to pay Eargle money to play basketball.
“This scout hit me up and said he watched my highlights and had an offer in Japan,” Eargle said. “I was like, ‘Sign me up.’ I wasn’t looking for a lot of money, but they’re paying me a good amount.”
Eargle will make a $56,000 base salary, with a $1,000 bonus for each win. He also gets a furnished two-bedroom apartment and a food and travel allowance. It’s not NBA money, but it’s enough to buy a lot of Dragon Ball Z DVDs.
“Can’t complain,” he said.
Eargle’s love of Japan hasn’t (yet) extended to the language. (Quick tip, Damian: Ohio means “good morning.” I learned that from watching “Big Bird in Japan” when I was a kid.) He’s not 100 percent sure how to pronounce the team’s name — “Oooooh, that’s kind of hard,” he said — and when asked how much Japanese he knows, he laughed and said, “Uh, none at all. We’re about to learn really quick.”
But Eargle does know basketball. After playing one year at North Carolina-Greensboro, he transferred back to Youngstown State, where he set the school and Horizon League record for career blocks (309) in just three seasons. He also scored more than 1,000 points and earned Horizon League defensive player of the year in 2013.
In December, Eargle played in one game for the Saint John Mill Rats of the National Basketball League of Canada before injuring his foot. Since then, he’s been working out and waiting for an opportunity.
“The thing is, with that foot injury, I was better physically but mentally I wasn’t,” he said. “I was afraid to jump a certain way. I didn’t want to pull a Derrick Rose [of the Chicago Bulls] and re-injure myself.
“I’m good now. I needed that time to workout, run and lift.”
Eargle knows he’ll be taller (6-foot-7) and, you know, tanner than most of the people in Japan, but he’s not worried about fitting in. He loves to talk and he loves to travel. The rest, he figures, will take care of itself.
“It’ll be a big culture shock, but it’s going to be a fun experience,” he said. “Just to see and do new things is always good for me. I’ve been traveling all my life. And I’m outgoing and funny, so I know I’ll adapt.
“It’s a blessing, to tell you the truth. I’m getting to see stuff that a lot of people don’t see.”
He’s not the only one. Eargle has three other teammates that are playing professionally overseas: Kendrick Perry (Australia), Kamren Belin (Romania) and Vytask Sulskis (Lithuania).
“That’s a huge step from when I first got to YSU,” Eargle said. “It’s great to see the talent level rise up. Hopefully they can keep it going this year.”