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Yuta Watanabe blazed his trail to NBA by following in his parents' footsteps

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
November 3, 2023
Yuta Watanabe left Japan at 18 to pursue his NBA dreams, and now his basketball journey has brought him and his parents around the world

When Yuta Watanabe left Japan 10 years ago to attend prep school in Oakdale, Conn., he was embarking on a brand-new journey. He was only 18 years old at the time. He didn’t know anyone in the United States. And he didn’t speak English yet.

It’s the type of landmark, coming-of-age moment that would give any parent gray hairs. But his mother, Kumi Kubota, and his father, Hideyuki Watanabe, were fully supportive of his decision to leave home. And in decade that’s passed since then, their support for their son has only grown as he’s begun to carve out his NBA career.

Earlier this week, the Phoenix Suns celebrated Devin Booker’s birthday at Monday’s practice. But it was also a special occasion for the Watanabes, as Yuta’s parents were in attendance at the 5G Verizon Performance Center to tour the facility, watch their son up close…and celebrate mom’s birthday as well.

“Yeah, we just did a birthday song [for Booker],” Watanabe laughed. “We sang the song, and my mom’s birthday too actually. I didn’t know they share a birthday, but yeah, it’s great.”

After practice, Hideyuki and Kumi got to meet coach Frank Vogel and general manager James Jones, sharing their mutual love of basketball and excitement for Yuta Watanabe becoming a member of the Suns.

“It’s wonderful, quite frankly,” Vogel said of the encounter. “It’s something I really embrace. The relationships in this business, those are the things that are the most important thing in this job. And whether it’s dealing with your PR guy or your medical staff or your coaching staff, your players, getting to know their families and getting to know them as people is a real fun, rewarding part of the job. And that’s no different with Yuta and his parents being in town.”

Kevin Durant had already met Yuta’s parents after spending last season as his teammate on the Brooklyn Nets, but like Vogel, he understood the significance of those types of moments.

“It’s always good to have family members here in the building,” Durant said. “It’s the type of atmosphere that we’re building here. It’s everybody’s family. We had a family event a couple days before we left to go to Golden State, so it’s always good to make it a real family and bring everybody’s immediate family around.”

Those opportunities are fewer and further between for Yuta Watanabe. His parents still live in Japan, and he typically only gets to see them twice a year — once when they come to watch him play stateside, and once during the offseason when he goes back home.

For this particular visit, however, his parents went the extra mile(s) to see their son play. Watanabe said they flew from Japan to San Francisco — about a nine-hour flight — to watch the Suns play the Golden State Warriors in their season opener. Then they flew to Los Angeles to watch the Lakers game. Then they flew back from LA to Phoenix so they could watch the Suns’ next three home games.

It wasn’t the first time Watanabe’s parents had seen him play in the NBA, but this trip was special, and longer than usual.

“This the first time for them to come, like, past few games ’cause I’ve never been a rotation guy my last five years of, like, the first few games,” Watanabe said. “So they seem really happy. They’re enjoying the time in Phoenix, they’re enjoying the weather. And my dad played golf, he loves golf, so he’s gonna love it!”

His parents will now fly back home following Thursday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, bringing their whirlwind trip to its conclusion. But since Watanabe figures to be a staple in the Suns’ rotation, they’re planning on making another trip back out to the states in February. That same support for his NBA dream is just as meaningful now as it was 10 years ago.

“It means a lot to me,” Watanabe said. “Flying from Japan, that’s a long flight. And they’re getting older, I know it’s tough, but still came to see me playing. Just seeing them smiling and being happy, that makes me really happy. So I just want to make them proud by me playing good games.”

Yuta Watanabe and his parents are hoopers

The Watanabes’ love for the game of basketball made it a lot easier for Yuta’s parents to be supportive when he decided to move across the globe and pursue his dreams of playing professionally. In fact, they had been actively helping him down that path for the better part of 10 years, serving as his coaches when he was growing up.

“They used to be my coach, and they told me a lot of stuff, a lot of details, a lot of good stuff,” Watanabe said. “The reason I’m in the NBA is because of them. So I really appreciate them, and I just can’t thank enough for them being great parents, great coaches, and they’re the best fans right now.”

Yuta’s parents knew the game well from firsthand experience. According to Watanabe, they were both hoopers.

“Oh yeah, used to be, big-time,” Watanabe said. “My mom’s actually one of the best players in Japan back in — I don’t even know, long time ago! My dad, I don’t know about that well, but he said he was good. I don’t know about that! But everybody says my mom was, like, great player. So yeah, they love basketball.”

Kumi Kubota played on the Japanese national women’s team multiple times, winning bronze medals at the 1982 and 1986 Asian Games. She also served as the captain for Team Japan at the 1983 FIBA World Championship, leading the team in scoring with 13.6 points per game. She once again led Team Japan in scoring at the 1984 Olympic Qualification Tournament, averaging 13.8 points per game.

Aside from her experience with the national team, Kubota also spent nine seasons in Japan’s professional league, winning the MVP award in 1985-86. Based on what Yuta’s heard, his mother was one of the first “unicorns” the game had ever seen in his country.

“I heard she changed the game a little bit,” Watanabe said. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but back then, she was pretty tall as a Japanese woman. Back then, taller guys usually go to the rim, backing down people, and don’t really dribble or shoot. But they’ve been saying she’s the first player [in Japan] to start doing some outside stuff as a tall player.”

As for his father, Hideyuki Watanabe played professionally too. Although he never got to suit up for the men’s national team, he spent nine years playing for the Kumagi Gumi Bruins in Japan.

“People say he was a scorer, he attacked the rim,” Watanabe said. “He was also tall and he was strong, and I heard that he had that good midrange game. He wasn’t a shooter or anything, but he had that good midrange game, so he was always attacking and getting free throws. And people say he never missed free throw. So I don’t know!”

Watanabe may joke about whether the stories from his parents’ playing days are true, but their knowledge and respect for the game had a profound impact on him growing up. Yuta’s work ethic comes directly from them, tracing back to a game years ago, when his parent-coaches got on his case.

“I remember there was a game, we were up by like 30 or something, and I didn’t dive for the loose ball, and they were so mad,” Watanabe recalled. “Like, ‘Why didn’t you go for the ball?’ I was like, ‘We were up by 30,’ and they were like, ‘I don’t care! No matter what, as long as you are on the court, you play hard.’ So since then, I just play hard no matter what.”

It’s a lesson that stuck with Watanabe throughout his time at George Washington University and was reinforced by his idol, Kobe Bryant, who was famous for his unrelenting work ethic.

So when Watanabe went undrafted in 2018, he wasn’t fazed. The goal was to play in the NBA, not get drafted. Getting to the league was a loose ball, and no matter what the score was, he was going to dive on it.

“Getting drafted or not drafted, it doesn’t really matter to me,” Watanabe said. “And so I think their advice when I was a kid, I think that mentality that I always have, I think that came from my parents. So I really appreciate them.”

International support for Yuta Watanabe starts at home

These days, Yuta Watanabe says his parents keep the coaching to a minimum. They’ll still offer advice or pointers if he asks for them, but no matter how he plays, they always offer a “good job” or a “keep working” afterward. Other than that, their expectations from him are pretty simple.

“They want me to make some shots,” Watanabe said with a grin. “They wanna see me make some open 3s. Last time [against the Utah Jazz], I went 1-for-4, they weren’t — I mean, they were still happy, but they weren’t happy about that part.”

Yuta Watanabe
(Photo via Yuta Watanabe’s Instagram)

Make or miss, win or loss, good or bad shooting night, the opportunity to watch their son play in person — as a rotation player on a potential title contender, no less — is something no one in the family takes for granted. That support extends overseas, where his parents wake up at whatever time is necessary to watch Yuta play.

Thanks to the 16-hour time difference, a 7 p.m. home game in Phoenix is a manageable 11 a.m. viewing experience in Japan. But for matinee games or road games on the east coast, his parents will wake up at all odd hours of the morning to watch their son play.

“Yeah, even early games, they get up super early,” Watanabe said. “When I was playing in Brooklyn, there was a game starting at, like, 1 p.m., so they’d have to get up like two or three [in the morning]. But they still got up, watching my game.”

Those early-morning wakeup calls might feel easier to stomach after such a memorable trip where the Watanabes got to see their son play in person for an extended stretch of time. The Suns may be off to a 2-3 start, but coming off a summer where Yuta was able to help Team Japan qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, the Watanabes are watching their son realize his basketball dreams in real-time — and maybe even fulfill some of their own as well.

“One of my mom’s goals when she was playing was to make Olympics, but she never did,” Watanabe explained. “She lost in qualifiers, and she never made it to Olympics. She was always saying, ‘My goal was to make Olympics, but I couldn’t, so I hope you make it.’ And I did it this time, so she was really happy. She said she’s coming to Paris next summer, so yeah, I’m excited.”

What’s another 14-hour flight two decades into a remarkable basketball journey?

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