It only lasted ten minutes, yet for the large number of Japanese reporters in the stands the long journey had definitely been worthwhile.
On November 3, 2004, the country’s new sporting hope had delivered. Yuta Tabuse, the first—and still only—Japanese-born player to play in an NBA game, came off the bench to score seven points, including a three pointer, in his debut game for the Phoenix Suns against the Atlanta Hawks.
The 34-year-old, who we spoke with while he was preparing for the new National Basketball League season with his team, Link Tochigi Brex, went on to play just three more games in America’s top league, but that brief stint amongst the world’s elite was an experience he’ll never forget.
“It was a crazy time,” he tells us. “When I was little my dad used to tape NBA games for me; now here I was playing in it. Everything about it was just amazing, the five star hotels, cars, eating octopus with Shawn Marion, banter with teammates; it was great.”
“They used to call me the Michael Jordan of Japan. Of course I didn’t take it seriously—the only thing they [my teammates] knew about Japan was sushi—but I was still happy to hear it. I also heard my NBA page had more views than Kobe Bryant—it was just unbelievable.”
With nearly 40,000 hits in one day, Tabuse set what was then a preseason record for daily views to a player page, more than doubling the previous record held by Bryant. A marketer’s dream, he remained in the public eye, even after being released by the Suns, appearing on the 2005 Japanese limited edition cover of the NBA Live video game, despite not having played a single NBA game that season.
Cynics would argue he was more effective off the court in America than he was on it, and they’d probably be right; however, that doesn’t mean we should underplay his achievements. A 5’9” basketball player from Japan, he knew the odds would be stacked against him, yet nothing would deter him from pursuing his dream. Following in the footsteps of players like Muggsy Bogues and Earl Boykins, he showed you didn’t necessarily have to be six foot plus to play in the NBA.
(Check out a clip that shows some of Tabuse’s early hoops career)
“I don’t feel short, apart from when I look at photos of myself with other players; then I look tiny,” he says laughing. “Growing up I always wanted to beat the bigger guys, but I never felt my height was a major issue.”
“In America being smaller actually proved to be an advantage in some ways. It helps get you noticed. I remember one game against the Pacers, Ron Artest—now known as Metta World Peace—talking to me when I was on the bench, ‘hey, can you play? I want to watch you.’ All my teammates were laughing, but it shows that people are keen to see what shorter players can do. It was a similar situation with [Yuki] Togashi this summer: there was real anticipation every time he came on and lots of excitement whenever he scored.”
The 5’7” Togashi quickly became a fan favorite after appearing for the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Summer League, and just signed a deal with the team that should see him playing this season with the Mavericks’ D-League squad, the Texas Legends. Another fellow countryman he’s been impressed by is Yuta Watanabe. A foot taller than Togashi, the 19-year-old committed to George Washington this year, becoming the only student-athlete from Japan to secure an NCAA Division I basketball scholarship.
“Togashi and Watanabe are very good prospects: both of them have what it takes to go far in the game,” Tabuse says. “I’d like to see more players from Japan follow in their footsteps and try to make it in the States or Europe. Basketball in this country needs more role-models, trying to raise the profile of the game. The sport is not given enough publicity here, so after I retire my plan is to promote basketball in Japan.”
Brex fans needn’t fret, as Tabuse has no plans to call time on his career just yet; in fact, he plans to play on until he’s in his forties. Readying himself for season number seven with Tochigi, he has been working on new moves, such as the floater, during the summer break. He’s already led Brex to a victory against the reigning National Basketball League champions, the Toshiba Brave Thunders, in their season-opening game.
Magic Johnson: He was my hero growing up. I would always watch the Lakers games then try to recreate his moves.
Michael Cooper: It was amazing being coached by someone I idolized. One of my earliest memories was watching him in the 1988 Finals vs. the Pistons.
Steve Nash: The best player I played with and a fantastic person. He took care of me even though it was unclear whether I’d make the roster or not [of the Suns].
Chris Paul: He’s the player I enjoy watching the most at the moment. A real leader for the Clippers, there’s an intensity to his game that is great to watch.
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