“Just being a basketball player,” says Watanabe, 23. “It’s not only about basketball. It’s about doing media.”
Watanabe understands all of this — representing his team like a professional in public and taking time to break bread with a reporter when there are more pressing matters on his mind — comes with being in the NBA. It’s a job he wants badly, as do his Japanese fans who watch his highlights on YouTube and followed him to Las Vegas to watch him play in the NBA Summer League.
“He says he’ll never give up,” says longtime fan So Seyama, closing his eyes and pumping his fist, “until he’ll be an NBA player. I already believe in him.”
The 6-foot-9 Watanabe played four years at George Washington and now aims to become the second Japanese player to make the NBA. The time in Vegas has placed him tantalizingly close to this goal. In his debut against the Orlando Magic, Watanabe, who was the 2017-18 Atlantic 10 defensive player of the year, stuffed the sixth pick in last month’s draft, Mohamed Bamba, at the rim. He finished his summer league run with eight blocks.
Although the Nets lost their five games in Vegas, Watanabe averaged 9.4 points on 41 percent shooting and 4.2 rebounds. The Japanese contingent believed they were witnessing history.
“We’re big fans, and it’s really important for him to be the second Japanese NBA player,” says Ayumi Koyama, who spent about $1,000 to travel from Washington to Vegas for Watanabe’s games.
During the Nets-Magic matchup, Yukio Tanaka only put down his beer to hold his sign written in kanji and hiragana that translated to “Fly, Yuta.” He shared no regrets on the financial burden of watching Watanabe.
“We should spend money for what we love,” Tanaka says.
But this was only summer league. It wasn’t the actual thing Watanabe grew up dreaming about in the countryside of the prefecture of Kagawa, in the northeast of Shikoku Island. While Watanabe is grateful for the excitement from Japanese fans and embraces the hero status from his homeland, becoming an NBA player still hangs in the balance. He’s waiting to learn whether he’ll get an invite to Nets training camp. Then, he still would have to make the 15-man roster for the regular season.
“Not really,” Watanabe responded when asked whether he feels like he’s in the NBA by playing in Vegas. “It’s great. It’s great for me. Great experience, but it’s still summer league. I still have a lot to go, so my goal is not here.”
For the love of the game
Both parents played professionally in Japan, and his mother also coached youth teams, so Watanabe knew he wanted to be a basketball player when he was only 6 years old. He consumed everything about the game. His face lights up when talking about a famous manga (a style of Japanese comic), “Slam Dunk,” about a “bad boy” and “scary guy” — as Watanabe describes the main character, Hanamichi Sakuragi — who joins his high school team to impress a girl but ends up falling in love with basketball.
“It’s a great comic,” Watanabe says, smiling.
When he was young, Watanabe waited until the morning to watch Kobe Bryant play because NBA games came on past his bedtime in Japan. And he can still remember the November day in 2004 when he turned on the recorded game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Phoenix Suns featuring point guard Yuta Tabuse, who became the first Japanese player in the NBA.
“I was watching TV, and I was screaming. I got so excited. That was like a great moment for me,” Watanabe recalls. “With him being the first Japanese player ever to step on an NBA court, it’s amazing. . . . I feel like I want to be like him. I just want to be like an NBA player like him.”
When Watanabe came to the United States to fulfill this dream, he was an unknown international product whose English consisted of “yes,” “no” and “My name is Yuta.” But he left Kagawa as “The Chosen One,” so named by a Japanese newspaper. He downplays his fame, claiming that only the parents of players would attend his high school games.
“Baseball is the biggest sport in Japan, then soccer, and basketball is . . .” Watanabe says, lowering his large hand to the tablecloth to signify how far down the game’s popularity is, at least in his view. “People don’t really care about basketball.”
An eight-minute highlight video posted after his Monday night game against the Minnesota Timberwolves eclipsed 41,000 views in less than 48 hours. During GWU’s 2016 four-game barnstorming tour through Japan, Coach Maurice Joseph relayed a story to the university’s publication about a woman literally throwing her baby to Watanabe for a photo.
“He’s really like LeBron James over there,” former teammate Tyler Cavanaugh told GW Magazine. “There’s a lot of pressure. He kind of feels the whole weight of a country on his shoulders.”
On the rise
Kosuke Kanematsu, who also traveled as one of about 15 Japanese fans to watch Watanabe’s summer league debut, says the basketball boom in Japan peaked two decades ago thanks in large part to “Slam Dunk,” which was published from 1990 to 1996, but the game’s popularity has faded after Tabuse’s brief stay in the NBA. Tabuse played four games for the Suns before getting waived in December 2004. Although the Japanese professional B League is new and gaining fans, Watanabe could become the country’s greatest hoops ambassador.
“Yuta is a generational talent who could connect multi-generations of fans in Japan,” Kanematsu wrote in an email. “Combined with the first wave of fans like me and my colleagues, . . . new teen fans and even our children, the basketball fan base in Japan would get bigger when Yuta becomes the second Japanese NBA player.”
For now, his opening act in Vegas will have to do. Although summer league is only the beginning, Watanabe still thinks it’s cool to wear the Jerry West logo on his chest — which is probably the real reason he walked around Vegas in his Nets shooting shirt.
After being thoughtful and patient through a 22-minute interview, Watanabe rises to leave, but the P.R. official informs him of another interview, this time with a Chinese media outlet. Watanabe never mentions the scheduled lunch with his parents, settles back into his seat and without an ounce of agitation in his voice says, “Twenty minutes, tops.”
He doesn’t feel the pressure of being the next great Japanese star, and he doesn’t view the off-court media attention as a distraction. Watanabe knows this is part of the job description for an NBA player, and he’s ready for it all. Now he just has to make the NBA.
“I’m not satisfied right now,” he says. “I just want to keep working hard. I just want to keep improving myself. And I just want to prove people that I can play in the real game.”