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Several images of Yuta Watanabe superimposed over the flag of Japan.

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Yuta Watanabe is still Japan’s ‘Chosen One’

Yuta Watanabe may be toiling in the G League, but “Yuta-mania” and hope for the future of Japanese basketball are still alive.

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Unlike most G League players, Memphis Hustle rookie swingman Yuta Watanabe has multiple media commitments after practice.

After most games, even away games, he’s surrounded by reporters. During a Grizzlies preseason scrimmage before the 2018-19 season, Yuta needed a separate press conference area to accommodate a group of approximately 20 credentialed Japanese media members. His whole world — the mob of reporters, the Japanese fans who comment on his YouTube G League highlights, the Linsanity-lite excitement in Japan that seems to follow his every move — already has a name: Yuta-mania.

In Japan, headlines refer to Yuta as “The Special One” or “The Chosen One.” He started playing with Japan’s senior national team when he was 16 and he was the first Japanese player to ever receive a Division-I basketball scholarship. He is the second-ever Japanese-born player to play in the NBA. The first, Yuta Tabuse, played four games with the Phoenix Suns during the 2004-2005 season.

Thousands of people packed tiny gyms to catch a glimpse of him during George Washington’s preseason summer trip to Japan in 2016. After each game, his teammates waited on the bus for nearly an hour as Yuta signed autographs and took pictures with swarms of adoring fans.

This past June, Japan added another star to the NBA ranks: former Gonzaga star Rui Hachimura, who went No. 9 overall to the Washington Wizards. Rui may have a brighter future, but Yuta ignited the nation first. Together, they’ve been thrust into ambassador roles for Japanese basketball.

But unlike Rui, Yuta’s life this upcoming season is unlikely to reflect the grandeur of their expectations. On a colorless, rainy February day in downtown Memphis, he is running late to our interview inside the Starbucks facing the FedExForum where the Hustle, the Grizzlies’ G League affiliate, have just finished practice. Two Hustle players push through the doors and head outside, still dressed for practice in team-issue hoodies and basketball shorts. They shield themselves from the weather and hop into the back of an old four-door sedan. Yuta, meanwhile, is being held up by a photoshoot for Dabudouri, a Japanese magazine.

Playing in the G League typically does not come with magazine photoshoots. The league is unglamorous, almost by design. Players earn five-figure salaries and travel by long bus rides around Middle America, giving them a sense of “The Grind”. The Hustle play their home games not in the 18,000-seat FedExForum, but in the 8,000-seat Landers Center in nearby Southaven, Mississippi. Even the G League’s team names — the Hustle, the Drive, the Wolves, the Charge — evoke hunger and hard work. Making it in the NBA must seem even more enticing during the second night of a back-to-back in White Plains, New York, and Portland, Maine.

Once he finishes his shoot, Yuta leaves FedExForum through the front door, jogging 100 yards or so through the rain to Starbucks alongside Geoff Langham, the Grizzlies’ communications coordinator. It’s a smaller Starbucks, and Yuta is 6’9 and dressed in obvious NBA player attire — a black Grizzlies puffer jacket, grey sweats, white Jordans. Still, the other patrons — an older man reading the comics in the Commercial Appeal, a pair of teachers lesson planning, even the baristas behind the counter — don’t look up. Geoff orders Yuta an iced vanilla latte, his favorite since he can remember.

Yuta Watanabe posing with a young fan wearing his jersey.

In Japan, Yuta — along with Rui and their generation of up-and-comers — carries the hopes of an entire sport on his shoulders. In Memphis, he divides most of his time between three locations: FedExForum, his apartment, and the Landers Center. On a typical day, he goes to practice, gets a ride home, takes a nap, eats, and rides back to the arena to put up shots. Rinse, repeat. Every choice he makes revolves around the dream that all G-Leaguers share: making it in the NBA.

Professionally, Yuta is in a state of limbo. He has a two-way contract with the Grizzlies, meaning that he can move freely between the Grizzlies and the Hustle without having to clear waivers. He earns roughly the same salary as a mid-career accountant ($77,250). He regularly drops 20-plus points in G League games, displaying a Joe Ingles-esque lefty 3-and-D skill set. But when he is called up to the Grizzlies, he struggles for playing time, averaging 2.6 points and 12 minutes per game this past season.

Yuta’s career is in an awkward place, sandwiched between two opposing forces: Japanese adulation and American indifference. Japanese basketball fans — still a niche group, to be sure — gobble up content about him, hoping he’ll lead the national team to prominence. Looming over the sport’s future are the Olympics, which will take place in Tokyo in 2020. Supporters hope Yuta — along with a cadre of younger, up-and-coming stars — can use that platform to put Japanese basketball on the map. In the meantime, he’s trying to make it in the United States, competing for just one of roughly 360 full-time jobs in the most competitive professional sports league in the world, all while adapting to a new language and culture.

Yuta reconciles these two forces by taking refuge in what he can control. He responds with poise, grace, and a dogged belief in putting in the work and trusting the process. There’s a sense among the Japanese media that Yuta has it, whatever it is. He has the personality, the drive, the pedigree, and the talent to make it at the highest levels.

And if he does make it, he might change Japanese basketball forever.

”The Chosen One” refers not only to Yuta’s skills, but also his upbringing. His father, Hideyuki, played professionally in Japan. His mother, Kumi played for the national team. His sister, Yuki, played for the Aisin AW Wings of the Women’s Japan Basketball League. His parents coached him when he was young, explaining exactly what it took to make it in the pros. Yuta has known he wanted to play in America ever since he was seven or eight, when he watched Kobe Bryant lead the Lakers to multiple NBA titles.

As Yuta grew up, Japanese basketball received largely apathetic attention from the nation’s media and sports fans. As baseball flourished, and imports like Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka took the Major Leagues by storm, basketball floundered. Games were barely available on television. Even Today, Bang Lee, a Japanese journalist for Space Ball Magazine and Tokyo pickup player — describes basketball as “probably the fifth-most popular” sport nationwide, trailing baseball, soccer, tennis, sumo, and perhaps martial arts. Japan lacks organized leagues and urban courts for pickup games. Until recently, it lacked a respectable top league.

Yuta injected excitement into Japanese basketball where there was none. His origin story plays into his popularity. The basketball talent coursing through his genes, his roots in the countryside, and his lanky 6’9 frame combine to make him the perfect folk hero for Japanese basketball.

He grew up in Miki, a small town in Kagawa Prefecture often beset by droughts. He garnered national attention when he played with the senior national team at age 16. He led Jinsei Gakuen High School to the finals at nationals during the equivalent of his junior and senior seasons, and realized that he could play Division I basketball in the U.S. His father knew Don Beck, a basketball coach in Japan since who had connections to American prep schools. Beck helped arrange a postgraduate year for Yuta at St. Thomas More in Connecticut.

During his prep school year, Yuta flashed enough 3-and-D potential to earn a three-star ranking from various recruiting services and an offer from George Washington. He stared down all of the expected challenges an immigrant might face: learning a new language, making new friends, creating a new life from scratch. He found a home in the gym.

”Basketball definitely helped,” Yuta says, “because even though I couldn’t speak English, I was able to spend a lot of time with my teammates, which helped me learning English a lot.”

During his time at GW, Yuta evolved from sixth man who provided energy and defense off the bench as a freshman, to the team’s go-to scorer and the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year during his senior season.

GW teammate Tyler Cavanaugh — one of Yuta’s best friends, and a power forward currently playing for the G League’s Salt Lake City Stars — remembers a shy Japanese kid who barely spoke any English. He says it’s important to acknowledge the leap of faith that Yuta took as an 18-year-old.

”Something people need to understand is how far he’s come and how hard it’s been for him to leave his home and come over to the States and not know any English,” Cavanaugh says. “I think Yuta gets misinterpreted sometimes. I think it’s the Japanese culture, but he’s very, very shy, very humble. Now you look at him and he’s in the NBA, and that’s a huge accomplishment.”

Yuta’s profile grew in Japan as he got better. Maurice Joseph, GW’s former head coach, remembers the exact moment when he understood how much Yuta meant to Japan. Joseph says after a game, a woman was trying to get Yuta to take a picture with her baby, but she couldn’t make her way through the throng that surrounded him. Eventually, she got tired of waiting and was close enough to toss her baby to Yuta. Yuta was startled, but he caught the baby. She snuck in next to him, and her husband took the picture. She grabbed the baby, bowed, thanked Yuta, and left.

”It was,” Joseph says, “the wildest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Yuta laughs when he recalls that moment.

Yeah, I mean, my coach told the media that, but obviously over-exaggerated a bit,” he says. “She didn’t throw (the baby), but she kind of forced me to take it, and I didn’t want to drop the baby. There were actually a lot of fans around me and she knew that I’d have to take the baby and take a picture with it, so …”

Yuta Watanabe, ball in left hand, drives toward the net.

According to Cavanaugh, Yuta has always been well-aware of his ambassadorial role.

”Yuta is like LeBron James in Japan,” he says. “After one game, we were all on the bus and there was a line of people waiting for him outside the gym to get his autograph and get a picture with him. We were waiting for like 45 minutes because he wanted to stay and he took a picture with all the people.”

After he graduated from GW in 2018, Yuta signed with the Brooklyn Nets’ summer league squad as an undrafted free agent. After a solid performance in Vegas, Yuta signed his two-way deal with the Grizzlies in July.

Across the Pacific, Japanese fans devour coverage of Yuta, whether that’s articles about him in the U.S.-based Kyodo News or Youtube videos of his G League highlights. Pull up any G League video of Yuta — such as this one, which chronicles a 32-point performance against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants — and scroll down. You’ll find that almost all of the comments are written in Japanese.

Yuta may be in professional limbo, but his success at GW and in the G League have done nothing to quell the excitement bubbling among his Japanese fanbase. He has no choice but to live with the hype.

When Yuta speaks, it’s clear he’s media savvy. He’s dealt with great expectations and national attention since he was 16, so he’s polished in an interview setting. With so much noise around him, so much pressure, he seems to focus only on what he can control. He’s quick to shoot down most of the easy narratives that apply to someone like him.

Does he miss Japanese food?

”I found a Japanese restaurant in Memphis. Sekisui. I get sushi. It’s really good, really authentic. I don’t really miss Japanese food here because I can eat it (when I want).”

Does he miss his family?

”Obviously, I’ve missed my family, friends, and everybody, but I can talk with them on the phone all the time. I feel comfortable here.”

Does he feel the pressure of being “The Chosen One?” Yuta is far too polite to roll his eyes, but it’s clear he’s fielded this question several times before.

”I don’t really feel any pressure. I can control only what I can control. I know they are calling me ‘Chosen One.’ (That’s a) big nickname. But there’s nothing that I can do with it.”

Yuta combats pressure by losing himself in his craft. His daily routine is simple and consistent. Just basketball, all the time. He never needed to drive at prep school or in Washington D.C., and he’s supposedly currently working on his drivers’ license. For now, he gets rides between the arena and his apartment from Austin, a Grizzlies intern. He’s living in a simple apartment, nice and clean. He’s not really into fashion or video games.

”I just love basketball,” he says. He’s almost apologetic, perhaps sensing that I’m mining for interesting off-the-court nuggets.

But basketball is what he wants to talk about. He’s a hoops nerd and he lights up when talking about old teams or current players. Yuta grew up a Lakers fan and credits Bryant for making him fall in love with the game, but he spends more time now watching Ingles film.

”I like his game and I watch him because I found similarities,” he says. “We’re both lefty, he’s a great defender, a great shooter. I try to, you know, steal.”

He also admires Tayshaun Prince, arguably the patron saint of lefty 3-and-D players and a current member of the Grizzlies’ front office. He lists that title-winning Pistons team — Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Prince, and the Wallaces — among his favorites, despite their victory over Bryant and the Lakers in the Finals.

After playing his college ball in Washington D.C., Yuta’s happy to live in a smaller, slower-paced environment where he can focus exclusively on basketball. He’s found a home in Memphis.

”I love Memphis,” he says. “This kind of reminds me of where I grew up in the countryside. It was a really small town, so this is actually good for me. This is where I feel more comfortable.”

He’s also found a good fit from a basketball perspective.

”That’s who I am, I think,” he says. “You know, I wanted to play with that Grit and Grind. I love how the team values that. I love how the Grizzlies value the defensive end. I just, I love it.”

During the preseason, Yuta further endeared himself to Memphis by displaying just how much American culture he’s embraced since he moved here. When all rookies were forced to participate in some light hazing by dancing to “In My Feelings”, Yuta hit the Shoot dance and shut down the gym as his teammates rushed the floor and mobbed him. You might know the dance from Fortnite, but it originated in Memphis (and its creator, BlocBoy JB, is taking legal action to make sure everybody knows).

”First of all, I’m not a dancer. I’m so bad,” Yuta says, laughing at the memory. “I’ve never done that in front of a lot of people.

”I guess I had to do it. I didn’t even think about it, I just let my body move.”

When Yuta finishes watching film, he’ll sometimes watch Japanese comedies, or The Office, which is his favorite show. He started watching it after he’d reached a certain level of English. He has seen the whole series all the way through at least three times. He lights up when I ask him who his favorite character is.

”Dwight,” he says without hesitation. “Love him.”

Why Dwight? Yuta empathizes with underdogs.

”You know, usually, Jim’s always on top of Dwight, he always does something to Dwight. He’s the guy who always wins the battle. But that one time, the snowball fight? Dwight wins, and Jim was really scared.

”That kind of satisfied me.”

On the surface, Yuta seems like a typical favorite. He was raised for success, almost in a Steph Curry-esque manner, in a basketball family. He’s well spoken. He’s intelligent. He’s good looking. He feels like a Jim.

But the fact that he prefers Dwight may shed some light on his situation in Memphis. He enjoys the simplicity of his life in Memphis, his role as the G Leaguer who has to grind out minutes, the squad player who has to prove himself at the highest level. He’s found a way to shrink the pressure that surrounds him by simply enjoying the space he’s in.

Yuta Watanabe and two teammates walking on the basketball court.

A small but rabid generation of Japanese fans who grew up watching Michael Jordan now has disposable incomes. E-commerce site Rakuten has partnered with the NBA in Japan and sponsors the Golden State Warriors’ jerseys. Recently, The Athletic’s Jared Weiss attended a Rakuten event in which 600 Japanese fans watched Game 1 of the Finals on tape delay in Shibuya, Tokyo.

Basketball may be ready to take root in Japan. Yuta and Rui playing in the 2020 Olympics on home soil is a good opportunity to nurture the seeds of the sport.

The current hope is that Yuta, Rui, and naturalized citizen Nick Fazekas can lead the national team to uncharted success at the tournament. There are also some young guns in the system. Chikara Tanaka — a 6’2 point guard and a current sophomore at IMG Academy, a basketball factory in Florida — broke Yuta’s record when he joined the national team at 15.

Yuta doesn’t have time to keep up with all of the games back home, but he usually takes the time to look through box scores, checking the statlines that his friends on the national team put up.

According to Los Angeles-based basketball journalist Yoko Miyaji, Japan has been planning for basketball at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games for several years now. Japan’s top professional league, The B.League — created in September 2016 as a merger between two other leagues that “used to hate each other,” according to Lee — exists solely for the purpose of the 2020 Olympics. Japan needed a respectable league because FIBA had suspended the country’s membership in 2014.

”The 2020 Olympics are really big,” Miyaji says via email. “It isn’t just the actual games. It already has been a turning point since the basketball world in Japan has been focusing on getting an Olympic berth as a host country.”

(Japan received that berth from FIBA at the end of March).

According to Miyaji, Yuta and Rui in particular hold the keys to Japan’s basketball future.

”Yuta and Rui playing in the NBA will be just as big (as the Olympics),” she says. “Them playing in the NBA will affect Japanese basketball in years to come. Not just playing in the NBA, but also them helping the Japan national team be relevant in Asia — and maybe the world — is going to be huge.”

Daisuke Sugiura — a New York-based journalist who covered Japanese baseball stars Hideki Matsui and Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka in their primes — agrees.

”Even my mom, who has no interest in basketball whatsoever, knows who Yuta is,” he says. “Still, I don’t think he is as famous as some Japanese MLB superstars just yet. Although that could change next year if he plays well in the Olympic Games in Tokyo.”

The Olympics feel like a sort of litmus test for Yuta and the state of basketball in Japan. Which seems to ride mostly on Yuta and Rui’s shoulders. The situation feels terribly complex, and yet Yuta doesn’t see it that way. He’s focused on the controllable, and living out the dream he’s had since he was seven.

”It’s gonna be great,” Yuta says. “I’m really excited.”

Whether Yuta ever fulfills his “Chosen One” billing on the court, he has already won off of it. His approval rating in Japan — among both fans and media members — has to be close to 100 percent.

”I’ve been working as a sportswriter for a while,” Sugiura says. “I’ve covered a lot of athletes, and I’d like to tell you that Yuta is probably the nicest and most cerebral athlete I’ve ever seen. The guy is smart, polite, and humble. He knows himself and his place. His parents did a tremendous job.

”I know that we have to be objective and neutral as a member of the media, but it’s very, very hard not to root for him. You’d understand if you cover and talk to him even once.”

Given the current direction of the league, it seems like there should be a spot somewhere for a 6’9 multipositional defender with an improving three-point stroke. Miyaji says shooting was always his strength, his pride, the element of his game he worked the hardest before he started grabbing attention for his defense at GW. Yuta shot 33 percent from three for the Hustle this past season. If he can bump that up even a few percentage points, he should have more opportunities in the NBA.

Yuta Watanabe stands in the middle of a group of reporters answering questions.

Even his name seems conducive to success. The league has plenty of mononym stars: Dirk, Luka, LeBron, Steph, Klay, Kobe, Dame, Giannis. On the Hustle broadcasts, whenever Yuta makes a play, you’ll hear the play-by-play man scream, “YUTA!” When he dunks, the color man will often yell, “SURAMUUU DANKUU!!!” — the Katakana pronunciation of “slam dunk” — perhaps in reference to the manga series that Yuta enjoys.

Although Rui may enter the league to more fanfare in the States and is projected to be the better player, Lee says that Yuta is the one whom the kids look up to.

”He gives all the young ballers the hope.”

Rui’s entrance into the NBA as a lottery pick could, in theory, dim Yuta’s glow. So far, it hasn’t.

“If anything, (Rui entering the league) will increase Yuta’s popularity,” Miyaji says. “I haven’t seen his popularity diminish yet. Rui gets more coverage than Yuta, for sure, but Yuta’s [popularity] hasn’t decreased.”

However, Miyaji warns, “he might see less media coverage during the upcoming NBA season, especially if Yuta stays on a two-way contract.”

But success for Yuta and Rui doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. The two are only direct competitors when the Wizards face the Grizzlies, and there is plenty of overlap between both fanbases. As Miyaji emphasizes, “hope” for Japanese basketball refers to both Yuta and Rui, as well as a group of younger stars like Tanaka. Yuta created the hope, and Rui can amplify it.

Still, journalists — and Yuta himself — try to inject doses of realism into the discourse.

”I have seen a few misleading headlines (in Japan), like ‘People in the U.S. are crazy about Yuta!’ which is simply not true,” Sugiura says. “But we mostly report the truth. Yuta is trying to get his minutes in the NBA. It’s not always easy, but he definitely has future potential.”

”Even becoming a two-way player is a big deal for Japanese fans,” Miyaji adds. “He’s only the third player from Japan to play in the G League, and it is a big deal (for Japanese fans) for him to play any NBA minutes.”

Miyaji emphasizes that Yuta understands his situation. He’s gracious with the media, and about what he’s accomplished so far. But he also gets that he hasn’t made it just yet. While Rui is guaranteed minutes and a chance to prove himself, Yuta is not. His position in the league is more tenuous.

Still, Miyaji says most people in Japan believe Yuta will be a full-time NBA player in the next season or two, especially given his size and versatility.

”There are media trying to follow and cover him, but it’s still mostly wait-and-see mode,” she says. “I feel like full blown ‘Yuta Mania’ has yet to happen.”

As you might expect, Yuta does his best to ignore the noise.

”I don’t know when I felt like I could make it,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if was gonna make it, but I’m sure I’m gonna keep working hard. I’m sure that my passion, my work ethic, everything was there.

“I just knew that eventually I’m gonna make it.”

At the end of his career, Yuta wants to know he did everything in his power to succeed.

”No regrets,” he says. “I don’t want it to be 10 years or 15 years (later) and look back on what I could have done. So I just want to do everything I can do every day so when I retire, I can say I did everything I wanted to do.”

Yuta Watanabe sits in a chair while holding a basketball between his legs.

Yuta can already look back without regrets for two reasons: first, he’s already accomplished everything he ever dreamed of, willing himself to a two-way contract in the NBA. He clearly enjoys the hell out of playing basketball for a living. Second, he’s already left an indelible impact on Japanese basketball, paving a path for younger Japanese talent. A path that didn’t exist pre-Yuta.

To that end, he’s mindful of his role as an ambassador for Japanese basketball. He hasn’t thought much about his post-basketball career, but when he retires, he wants to mentor the next generation of great Japanese players. He wants to help Japanese players challenge themselves in the States.

”When I was in high school, when I said I wanted to go to the U.S., I didn’t have any connections or any people to talk with,” he says. “It was really hard to find a school that I could go to. Fortunately, my dad knew somebody and that guy helped me a lot.

So I guess I want to help those kids who want to come to the U.S. Give them advice.”

Yuta’s college career didn’t get the storybook ending it deserved. In his final college game, GW lost to St. Louis in the second round of the Atlantic 10 tournament in a mostly empty Capital One Arena in his adopted hometown of Washington D.C.

With eight minutes left in the game and GW down by two, Yuta stole the ball and raced toward St. Louis’s basket. A Billikens player tried to block the shot, initiating contact. Yuta rolled his ankle and needed help hobbling off the floor. GW’s trainer wrapped his ankle and escorted him to a nearby tunnel.

”Prove to me you can run and jump,” he says. Yuta couldn’t. He spent the rest of the game on the bench, his chin bandaged, his ankle sprained as his team’s season came to an end.

”I’m really frustrated, but after I got injured, I was watching my teammates from the bench,” he says. “And they never gave up.”

After the game, he hobbled out of the locker room on a crutch, his ankle swathed in ice. He answered questions in English for the American media and in Japanese for the Japanese media. As he spoke, tears filled his eyes.

Later, after everyone had left the arena, he sent a message to Miyaji, saying he would answer additional questions. He felt he didn’t talk as much as he should have earlier because he was too emotional after the end of his college career.

This is Yuta in a nutshell. Even during a low point in his career, he inherently understood his role as an ambassador for the sport and a representative of his country. And he relished the chance to make a difference and to live within the world of basketball. Even if he plays the rest of his career in the G League, his current life — practice, games, an episode of The Office — is a good one for the kid who always dreamed of playing basketball in the States, “Chosen One” pressure be damned.

”I’m really glad that basketball is my job now,” he says. Then, he gets up to catch a ride back to his apartment, where he’ll eat and nap before returning to the Forum to get up more shots.

This article was reported in collaboration with Dat Winning.


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