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Saitama housewife catches NBA’s eye with cute illustrations of Oklahoma City Thunder players

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Sometimes nonverbal means of communication can connect you to the world.

And social media makes it so much easier nowadays.

Saitama Prefecture housewife and amateur artist Nanae Yamano has proven that with her cute drawings of NBA players.

Last month, the NBA invited the 43-year-old to Oklahoma City to watch Game 2 of the first-round playoff series between the Thunder — her favorite team — and the Utah Jazz (the Thunder fell 102-95 in the contest and were eventually eliminated by the Jazz 4-2).

Yamano has been drawing all her life, but has never formally studied art and does it just for fun.

Yamano is not even a longtime NBA fan either. To her, Michael Jordan is just someone she recognizes because he was a “household name” back in the day.

She started drawing NBA players in 2012. She was electrified by watching Thunder star Russell Westbrook on TV in that year’s playoffs. Since then, she has drawn the star guard and his Thunder teammates after every game, and posted her work on social media, mainly Instagram.

Still, Yamano did not imagine people in America would pay attention to her work.

“It was incomprehensible to me at first,” Yamano told The Japan Times at a cafe in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, last week. “There is such a wide variety of illustrators drawing NBA players. I was thinking that they tend to depict athletes as superheroes and my style would not be embraced.”

She added that she thought her cute style of drawing would not be accepted in the sports culture of the United States.

At the end of the day, she was wrong.

“I was told, ‘Your work is great because it represents the personalities and emotion of the players,’ and I wasn’t certain how they were able to get it,” Yamano said. “Sometimes your message doesn’t come across even between Japanese. It’s funny that people in America get it, even though our languages are so different and the backgrounds we have are so different.”

Taking advantage of the convenience of the digital era, Yamano’s work has crossed the Pacific. She was first introduced to the American public in a Vice Sports article and then in a Wall Street Journal story in March this year. The latter story caught the attention of the NBA, which facilitated her trip to Oklahoma City.

In her first-ever trip outside of Japan, Yamano had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not only was she able to enjoy watching “Russ” and the Thunder play in person (she sat in the fifth row), she was overwhelmed by the treatment she received away from the game as well.

The Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, native visited the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and the Oklahoma City National Memorial (which was built on the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing). She even met Mayor David Holt at his office.

She also appeared in a few television interviews.

“I was surprised because there was no way I expected I would be welcomed the way I was,” she said.

Yamano now hopes to visit the city again if she has a chance in the future. But she won’t go back just for Thunder games. She would like to walk around the town again. She became fascinated by Oklahoma City, which she feels embraces Native American art.

Yamano, who lives with her husband and 12-year-old son, has 18,700 followers on Instagram and the number keeps growing.

Yet Yamano, who calls herself a “doodler” on her Instagram profile, is not thinking of turning into a professional illustrator.

“I’ll continue to be an amateur,” smiled Yamano, who draws digitally on her tablet. “I think professional people would sometimes have to do things they don’t want to do.

“Although my pictures aren’t so polished, I’m doing what I’m doing to express myself. And that attitude took me over there (to Oklahoma City). I don’t want to change that. So I’d like to continue to be an amateur.”