The Oklahoma City Thunder features many iconic basketball players, but it will not be complete without the Thunder Girls. In fact, one dancer traveled all the way from Japan to cheer for the Oklahoma City Thunder, two years in a row.
Born in Tokyo, Japan, and raised in Chiba, Kei began taking dance lessons when she was only three years old.
"My mom took me to classic ballet classes. And I continued to dance until I was 17."
Kei has been a professional dancer for about eight years. Before she joined the Thunder Girls, Kei danced for a professional baseball team, soccer team, and a football team in Japan.
Kei, who grew up with her parents and sister in a city with a population of more than 900,000, had an even bigger dream.
"I've always dreamed of becoming a professional dancer in the U.S. since I was a kid," said Kei. "I often watched NBA games with my friends when I was in Japan."
To realize this dream, three years ago, Kei traveled from Japan to the U.S. to search for her favorite NBA team. After meeting some Thunder fans at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Kei decided that she wanted to cheer for the Thunder.
"At the Thunder game, I met some Thunder fans. They are amazing. They told me about the team and how much they loved the team." Kei said.
The Thunder Girls was the first team Kei auditioned for in the U.S. Even though she made it on the team, Kei said the audition process was very long and stressful.
"The process started with the preliminary audition. There are three rounds," said Kei. "They will judge the pom routine first, and then hip-hop, jazz, techniques."
To prepare for the final audition, Kei said she practiced her hip-hop, jazz, and freestyle routine, as well as her written test and an on-stage interview.
"The interview portion, I think, is the hardest part for me. Because I need to speak English and I need to understand what the judges said. So I practice a lot for that," Kei said.
Besides performing on game days, Kei said the best part about being a Thunder Girl is being able to give back to the community.
"It's always fun to meet the fans and talk about the Thunder. I also like to perform on the court. Pretty much everything," Kei said.
Kei also keeps herself busy by writing articles for NBA Japan's website and a Japanese basketball magazine. When she does have time off, Kei said she loves to travel.
Even though her family still lives in Japan, Kei said they are very supportive of her dream.
"My family is very supportive, especially my dad. But he is a little bit strict and overprotective. So the first time I told him that I want to try out for the team, he was so nervous [for me] to leave Japan," said Kei. "But now I made the team two years in a row, he trusts me a lot, so he's very supportive."
After living in Oklahoma City for two years, she said her favorite thing about the city is the people.
"The community is amazing. People are so nice and friendly. People care about each other a lot," Kei said.
Kei said she is happy now because one of her career goals is to dance for an NBA team. But ultimately, she hopes to learn from her experience as a professional dancer, and contribute to the sports industry in Japan and other Asian countries.
"I'm living my dream," she said.