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Raptors' Yuta Watanabe opens up about his basketball journey in inspiring essay

Brandon Wong
·4-min read

Yuta Watanabe detailed how words have impacted him throughout his basketball journey in an inspirational essay called “The Power of Words” for The Players' Tribune on Friday.

Despite signing a standard NBA contract on April 19, Watanabe made it clear there’s still room for improvement and explained how words — both positive and negative — helped shape him into the player and person he is today.

Even though I play in the NBA now, I haven’t always played at an elite level. I experienced a heap of growing pains in junior high school, and I struggled to get accepted into a high school with a strong basketball team. I was rejected from one school after another.

It was under such difficult circumstances that Shikama-sensei [my high school coach and mentor] from Jinsei Gakuen gave me the chance. Under his tutelage, day in and day out, I trained very hard. And then, in my sophomore year, I made the Japanese national team as the youngest player ever.

I’ll never forget the words that came out of Shikama-sensei’s mouth: “Keep humble. Don’t become cocky because you made the national team.”

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Watanabe has credited his high school coach for instilling him with shoshin (beginner’s mind) and kenkyo (humility), which are two words he’s emulated in his daily life, especially during his time in America.

As a result, I’ve been helped by people around me on countless occasions.

It’s been eight years, almost a third of my life, since I moved to America. I’m appreciative of all the people who have supported me during my journey — from my teammates at St. Thomas More School, who helped me out with my English, to the guys at George Washington University who assisted me with my studies. Throughout that time, I tried to remain as humble as possible. Even now in the NBA, I try to do so.

Yuta Watanabe opened up about his basketball journey in The Players' Tribune. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Yuta Watanabe opened up about his basketball journey in The Players' Tribune. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Although the 26-year-old forward’s journey has been mostly positive, it definitely came with its fair share of challenges like when he received a message from his parents about his chances of making it to the NBA.

I can still recall it as clear as day.

“Hey Yuta, we bumped into so-and-so the other day. He asked us if you were going to make it as an NBA player. Half-jokingly, we told him that you still had a very long way to go.”

When I read that message, I was really shocked.

After debating whether or not to confront his parents, Watanabe said he turned to his former high school teammate Ryusui Kusomoto, who encouraged Watanabe to speak his mind and assured him that his parents would understand.

I texted them: “I’m in a critical moment in my basketball career and I don’t need any negative words that dampen my determination. Both of you guys understand me more than anyone else, and ever since I started to play basketball, you’ve been my biggest supporters. That’s why I need you to have my back until I make it to the NBA.”

My parents called me straight away. Familiar voices from my homeland …their first words were, “Sorry, son.”

I remember my chest tightening when I heard those words.

That’s the power of words. If I weren’t putting in 110% in training or if I had no talent, I’d be fine with hearing, “Our son has a very long way to go.” But my parents knew how hard I was working. I wanted to absorb positive thoughts rather than negative thoughts. I wanted to hear the positivity from my parents.

Watanabe has since become a regular part of the rotation while contributing on a consistent basis, including scoring a career-high 21 points in a win against the Orlando Magic earlier this month.

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Regardless of the amount of minutes played, it's clear that his attitude and work ethic has paid dividends in his third year.

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