A Humbling N.B.A. Moment Brings Cheers From Japan


Toronto Raptors ahead Yuta Watanabe ended up on the improper finish of a viral second when Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards dunked on him throughout a game in February.

Photos and movies of Watanabe hopelessly developing brief in his try to cease the dunk made their manner throughout social media, together with the Instagram feed of the actor and basketball fan Kevin Hart, who shared a photo of the dunk together with his 100-million-plus followers, saying: “This defender has to be thrown out of the league immediately….there’s no coming back from this.”

But Watanabe continues to be right here, and in his third N.B.A. season he has captured the creativeness of basketball followers in Japan, his residence nation, whereas incomes a rotation spot with the Raptors.

Takeshi Shibata is the supervisor of basketball business for Nippon Bunka Publishing and has been a author and editor with the corporate in Tokyo since 2010. A Tokyo native, he grew up watching the Showtime Lakers on satellite tv for pc tv within the 1980s, studying English by listening to the famed play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn.

This season, he is without doubt one of the dozens of Japanese reporters overlaying Watanabe, whom he has adopted since Watanabe was in highschool enjoying for Jinsei Gakuen within the Kagawa Prefecture in Japan.

“What I saw was an unbelievably athletic player,” Shibata stated. “He was a man of energy, a man of effort.”

Watanabe has the best-selling N.B.A. jersey in Japan this season, forward of Golden State’s Stephen Curry, the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James and Rui Hachimura, the Washington Wizards ahead who in 2019 grew to become the primary Japanese participant ever drafted within the first spherical.

Hachimura has extra title recognition and higher odds of changing into a star within the league, however Watanabe’s story — going undrafted in 2018 after 4 seasons at George Washington University, then signing a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies — has appealed to a big viewers in Japan.

“He took more of a humble path,” stated Ed Odeven, who grew up within the Bronx and has coated basketball in Japan since shifting there in 2006. “The Japanese culture places a value on sticking with it and working hard to reach your goals. They see that in Yuta, and it resonates with them.”

The pandemic curtailed Shibata’s plans to travel to Toronto — the place he honeymooned together with his spouse, Ayako, in 1994 — to cowl Watanabe in individual this season. Instead, he wakes up at 5 a.m. and covers the Raptors from his residence in Chiba, Japan, publishing as much as 4 basketball tales day by day on the corporate’s web site. (The Raptors aren’t in Toronto, both; due to Canada’s health restrictions, they’ve spent the season in Tampa, Fla.)

Shibata appreciates the pliability of working from residence, and has developed a rapport with Toronto Coach Nick Nurse, who has answered questions from Japanese reporters on the finish of his digital news conferences.

“I enjoy talking to him and getting responses from him,” Shibata stated. “He knows my English is shaky, and I’m trying my best to communicate with him. He’s been really inclusive to someone like me.”

Through Toronto’s first 66 video games, Watanabe has appeared in 47 and is averaging 4.2 points in 14.2 minutes.

“I’m pretty sure I could come up with a good story even if Yuta played five seconds on the court,” he stated. “Because every second means a lot to the basketball fans in Japan.”

Shibata was employed by Nippon Bunka Publishing in 1992 as an promoting affiliate at what he believed was the beginning of a golden period of basketball in Japan.

He joined the corporate shortly after watching Michael Jordan and the Dream Team on the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, which ignited curiosity within the game globally. That coincided with the publication of a well-liked Japanese basketball manga written and illustrated by Takehiko Inoue and named “Slam Dunk.” It ran from 1990 to 1996, bought over 120 million copies in Japan and helped encourage tens of millions of youngsters — together with Hachimura and Watanabe — to play the game.

Two native leagues finally emerged. The Basketball Japan League started in 2005, and the Japan Basketball League, which grew to become the National Basketball League, adopted in 2007. Having two home leagues operating concurrently violated FIBA’s basic statutes, and the Japan Basketball Association, which oversaw each, was suspended from worldwide competitors in 2014.

“There’s been so many roadblocks along the way,” Shibata stated.

Things have began to vary up to now a number of years. The FIBA ban was lifted in 2015. The B. League — a brand new native professional league that includes 47 groups throughout three divisions — launched in 2016 and has been successful by the primary 5 years, attracting native followers and main sponsors.

Hachimura and Watanabe have impressed a brand new technology not solely to look at the game, but in addition to see themselves enjoying on the highest stage. (Yuta Tabuse grew to become the primary Japanese-born participant to play within the N.B.A. in 2004, however lasted solely 4 video games with the Phoenix Suns.)

In Japan, basketball is watched a lot lower than baseball, soccer, tennis and sumo wrestling. Local newspapers will publish the occasional basketball story, such because the news final month that the Raptors had transformed Watanabe to a regular N.B.A. contract. But N.B.A. video games can be found solely on-line, by a streaming partnership between the league and Rakuten.

To discover basketball protection in Japan, you should actively search it out.

For the longest time, the news media reported solely conventional game tales, which was an adjustment for the previous Lakers heart Robert Sacre, who performed professionally in Japan for 3 seasons.

“They’re way more respectful,” he stated. “They just want to know what happened during the game. It was never about trying to find a story. They want to know why you guys won or why you guys lost. It was unique in that sense.”

There’s now a rising variety of social media accounts, YouTube channels and podcasts, and so they’re serving to to supply the sort of off-the-court, personality-driven tales that mirror how basketball is roofed in North America.

“It’s become different in the last decade,” stated Detroit Pistons Coach Dwane Casey, who coached in Japan from 1989 to 1994 and visits repeatedly. “You can see the younger generation getting more excited about basketball, and they’re covering it now. They’re into all the same things that get the younger generation’s attention in North America.”

N.B.A. groups are recognizing this new urge for food for digital content material. The Raptors featured Watanabe in an episode of “Open Gym,” their behind-the-scenes video sequence, in February. It is the season’s most-viewed episode. And in 2019, the Wizards employed Zac Ikuma, a bilingual sports activities reporter in Japan, as a digital correspondent. The workforce has a devoted Japanese Twitter account, and Ikuma hosts a Japanese-language podcast for followers abroad.

Shibata has additionally ventured into telling completely different sorts of tales on-line. One of his hottest options was a few group of feminine Raptors followers in Toronto who nicknamed themselves “the Watana-baes.” The story, an explainer on the time period “bae,” was picked up by a Japanese tv community.

The digital actions of youthful basketball followers are additionally serving to give the North American viewers a greater concept of how the game is perceived in Japan.

A few weeks after video of the Edwards dunk towards Watanabe went viral, a Japanese reporter requested Watanabe concerning the play. The interview was translated into English by the Twitter fan account @RaptorsInfoJPN.

“In a situation like that, most people avoid it these days for fear of it going viral on the internet,” Watanabe stated. “I think, if I do so, I shouldn’t be here anymore and I shouldn’t get any playing time.”

For Shibata, the play exemplified Watanabe’s work ethic, which has opened the door for a brand new technology of basketball gamers in Japan to dream of someday following the identical path to the N.B.A.

“It was only two points,” Shibata stated.
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“We were proud of him for sacrificing his body to try to stop the dunk. To be an N.B.A. player, you have to stop these guys in the air. To do that, you can’t hide.”





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