On an early fall day 16 months ago, George Washington men’s basketball Coach Mike Lonergan got a phone call from Jamie Cosgrove, an old friend he had first met in college. Cosgrove, the coach at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., had just come back from a visit to his old coach and boss Jere Quinn, who coaches at St. Thomas More Academy, a boarding school about 45 minutes from Trinity.
“I saw this kid, and the first thing I thought was, ‘Toni Kukoc,’ ” Cosgrove said, referencing the former Chicago Bulls star who came to the United States from Croatia. “I mean, he was an 18-year-old kid at a prep school, but when I watched him, that’s what I thought.”
The kid was Yuta Watanabe, now a George Washington freshman whose playing time and renown are growing on an almost daily basis. Watanabe, a 6-foot-8 forward with a silky left-handed jump shot and a solid perimeter game, is only the fourth Japanese-born player to compete at the Division I level in basketball. Although he has played only 16 college games, his early results indicate his potential goes way beyond the three who preceded him.
“My dream,” he said last week in his first interview in English since arriving at GW, “is to play someday in the NBA.”
Most college players with any talent at all dream of playing in the NBA. Only a small handful actually get there. And only one Japanese-born player — Yuta Tabuse, a 5-foot-8 guard who appeared in four games for the Phoenix Suns in 2004 — has played in the NBA. But those who have seen him play and practice the most, including Lonergan, think Watanabe’s dream is possible.
“He’s got so much upside. You can see it every day,” Lonergan said. “He can shoot, he can play outside comfortably and he learns so quickly. He still speaks English slowly, but his comprehension is off the charts. He’s been our most consistent player. That isn’t supposed to be true when you’re a freshman.”
His efforts are just starting to attract attention in the United States. In Japan, though, he is a star. He has been labeled “The Chosen One” by the Japanese media, which might appear to be a lot of pressure for a 20-year-old college freshman.
“I like it,” he said, smiling broadly. “When I read this, it makes me very happy.”
Going into Thursday’s game against Richmond at Smith Center, Watanabe is averaging eight points and almost four rebounds while averaging 21 minutes per game off the bench . He has scored in double figures in six straight games and was the only GW player in double figures (with 12) on Saturday in a 63-50 loss at La Salle. “He was the only guy who showed up to play,” Lonergan said a couple of days later. “I have to get him a lot closer to 30 minutes a game. We need him out there.”
Watanabe’s journey to being a key player on a 12-4 team that has serious NCAA tournament aspirations has been a long one, literally and figuratively.
“I didn’t know if I would be good enough to play for an American college team,” he said. “But I wanted to try.”
Watanabe first began to attract attention in his home country when Tom Wisman, an American who was coaching the Japanese national team, asked Watanabe to join the team even though he was just a high school junior.
“I had to give my approval because he was only 16,” Hideyuke Watanabe, Yuta’s father, said in an e-mail. “I was surprised because he was so young. But I said yes.”
The Watanabes are a basketball family. Both of Yuta’s parents and his older sister played professionally in Japan. Hideyuke Watanabe was a fan of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, dating from their famous 1979 meeting in the NCAA national championship game. His son idolizes Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant — but not so much LeBron James. “I liked him until he left Cleveland for Miami,” he said. “I like people to be loyal.”
Intrigued by the notion his son was good enough to play for the national team as a high school junior, Hideyuke Watanabe began to wonder whether he could play college ball in the United States. Wisman put him in touch with Don Beck, who had coached at the Division I and Division II levels before taking a job five years ago coaching a professional team in Japan.
Beck recommended a post-graduate year of schooling so Yuta could work on his English and got in touch with Quinn at St. Thomas More.
“Almost every kid we get here is hoping for a college scholarship,” Quinn said. “I make sure they all get to play every game. When Yuta first got here, he struggled because he didn’t speak English. Fortunately, we had a teacher who was Japanese who really helped him along the way. The longer he was here, the better he got.”
The first college coach to spot Watanabe’s potential was Fordham’s Tom Pecora, who came to watch him after a call from Quinn, a close friend of Pecora’s since childhood. Soon after, GW came into the picture. Quinn felt it was important that Watanabe go to a city school that had a Japanese population. Fordham and GW both fit the bill.
When Watanabe saw Washington and the GW campus, he was convinced.
“I liked Coach Lonergan right away,” he said. “And the players and the city. I knew this was where I wanted to be.”
Although a number of big-time programs tried to get involved with Watanabe after he had blossomed during the second half of St. Thomas More’s season, he stuck to his verbal commitment to GW. Now he is rapidly becoming a cult figure on campus.
“He’s been great,” junior swingman Patricio Garino said. “A lot of times he’s more poised than the rest of us. He gives us great energy off the bench.”
As quiet as Watanabe appears to be when speaking in his second language, he plays with plenty of energy and a good deal of flair. He yanks rebounds when he’s near the ball and, during GW’s win over Saint Louis last week, screamed to the heavens a couple of times after key plays. When he drained a three-pointer to put the Colonials up 52-49 after they had trailed by 12, he ran down the court pointing three fingers at his head and pounding his chest.
“The three fingers to the head was new,” assistant coach Hajj Turner said with a laugh after the game. “The chest-pounding thing started in Hawaii [at a tournament in December]. He watches a lot of basketball on TV.”
GW barely escaped that night. The Colonials led 75-72 with two seconds left. The Billikens had an inbounds pass from the left side of the basket, and Lonergan put Watanabe back in the game to bother the inbounder.
“He did that well, but then he forgot the guy inbounding was his man to guard,” Lonergan said.
The inbounder was Mike Crawford, already 3 for 3 from three-point range. He passed the ball to Austin Gillmann, then cut to the corner for a quick give-and-go. Realizing his mistake, Watanabe leaped at Crawford and blocked the shot. There was contact but no foul called.
“Didn’t foul him,” Watanabe said, grinning a few minutes later. “I learn from making a mistake.”
Watanabe’s doing a very good job of learning in the classroom, too — backing up what Lonergan says about his comprehension with a 3.83 grade-point average in the first semester. Like a lot of college athletes, his first priority is basketball.
“I like school,” he said. Then he paused, laughed and said, “Actually, I don’t really like it.” Spoken like a true college freshman.
When GW Athletic Director Patrick Nero checked with his academic counselor last summer to make sure Watanabe was doing okay in school, the response he got was a laugh. “He told me Yuta was the only kid we’d ever had who showed up early for 8 a.m. study hall,” Nero said. “I stopped worrying at that point.”
Watanabe admits he gets homesick at times. His parents can watch him play on their computers at home but haven’t been here to visit since school started. “My teammates have helped me with this a lot,” he said. “When they see I’m getting lonely, they take care of me.”
They should. Because when the games start, more and more, “The Chosen One” is taking care of them.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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