Toronto Raptors ahead Yuta Watanabe ended up on the unsuitable finish of a viral second when Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards dunked on him throughout a sport in February.
Pictures and movies of Watanabe hopelessly developing quick in his try to cease the dunk made their means throughout social media, together with the Instagram feed of the actor and basketball fan Kevin Hart, who shared a photo of the dunk along with his 100-million-plus followers, saying: “This defender needs to be thrown out of the league instantly….there’s no getting back from this.”
However Watanabe remains to be right here, and in his third N.B.A. season he has captured the creativeness of basketball followers in Japan, his dwelling nation, whereas incomes a rotation spot with the Raptors.
Takeshi Shibata is the supervisor of basketball enterprise 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 likely 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 noticed was an unbelievably athletic participant,” Shibata mentioned. “He was a person of vitality, a person 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 College, then signing a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies — has appealed to a big viewers in Japan.
“He took extra of a humble path,” mentioned Ed Odeven, who grew up within the Bronx and has lined basketball in Japan since shifting there in 2006. “The Japanese tradition locations a worth on sticking with it and dealing laborious to achieve your objectives. They see that in Yuta, and it resonates with them.”
The pandemic curtailed Shibata’s plans to journey to Toronto — the place he honeymooned along with his spouse, Ayako, in 1994 — to cowl Watanabe in particular person this season. As a substitute, he wakes up at 5 a.m. and covers the Raptors from his dwelling in Chiba, Japan, publishing as much as 4 basketball tales every day on the corporate’s web site. (The Raptors aren’t in Toronto, both; due to Canada’s well being restrictions, they’ve spent the season in Tampa, Fla.)
Shibata appreciates the pliability of working from dwelling, and has developed a rapport with Toronto Coach Nick Nurse, who has answered questions from Japanese reporters on the finish of his digital information conferences.
“I take pleasure in speaking to him and getting responses from him,” Shibata mentioned. “He is aware of my English is shaky, and I’m attempting my finest to speak with him. He’s been actually inclusive to somebody like me.”
By way of Toronto’s first 66 video games, Watanabe has appeared in 47 and is averaging 4.2 points in 14.2 minutes.
“I’m fairly certain I may give you a great story even when Yuta performed 5 seconds on the court docket,” he mentioned. “As a result of each second means rather a lot to the basketball followers 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 time Olympics in Barcelona, which ignited curiosity within the sport 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, offered over 120 million copies in Japan and helped encourage hundreds of thousands of kids — together with Hachimura and Watanabe — to play the sport.
Two native leagues finally emerged. The Basketball Japan League started in 2005, and the Japan Basketball League, which grew to become the Nationwide Basketball League, adopted in 2007. Having two home leagues working concurrently violated FIBA’s normal statutes, and the Japan Basketball Affiliation, which oversaw each, was suspended from worldwide competitors in 2014.
“There’s been so many roadblocks alongside the way in which,” Shibata mentioned.
Issues have began to alter prior 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 means of the primary 5 years, attracting native followers and main sponsors.
Hachimura and Watanabe have impressed a brand new era not solely to look at the sport, but additionally to see themselves enjoying on the highest degree. (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. Native newspapers will publish the occasional basketball story, such because the information final month that the Raptors had transformed Watanabe to an ordinary N.B.A. contract. However N.B.A. video games can be found solely on-line, by means of a streaming partnership between the league and Rakuten.
To seek out basketball protection in Japan, you will need to actively search it out.
For the longest time, the information media reported solely conventional sport tales, which was an adjustment for the previous Lakers heart Robert Sacre, who performed professionally in Japan for 3 seasons.
“They’re far more respectful,” he mentioned. “They only need to know what occurred throughout the sport. It was by no means about looking for a narrative. They need to know why you guys gained or why you guys misplaced. It was distinctive in that sense.”
There’s now a rising variety of social media accounts, YouTube channels and podcasts, they usually’re serving to to supply the form of off-the-court, personality-driven tales that replicate how basketball is roofed in North America.
“It’s turn out to be completely different within the final decade,” mentioned Detroit Pistons Coach Dwane Casey, who coached in Japan from 1989 to 1994 and visits commonly. “You may see the youthful era getting extra enthusiastic about basketball, they usually’re overlaying it now. They’re into all the identical issues that get the youthful era’s consideration 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 Gymnasium,” their behind-the-scenes video collection, in February. It’s 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 staff 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. Certainly one of his hottest options was a couple of 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 thought of how the sport is perceived in Japan.
A couple of 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 scenario like that, most individuals keep away from it as of late for concern of it going viral on the web,” Watanabe mentioned. “I feel, if I accomplish that, I shouldn’t be right here anymore and I shouldn’t get any enjoying time.”
For Shibata, the play exemplified Watanabe’s work ethic, which has opened the door for a brand new era of basketball gamers in Japan to dream of someday following the identical path to the N.B.A.
“It was solely two factors,” Shibata mentioned. “We had been pleased with him for sacrificing his physique to attempt to cease the dunk. To be an N.B.A. participant, it’s important to cease these guys within the air. To try this, you possibly can’t conceal.”