What does Kobe Bryant mean to Japan’s basketball culture?
Simply put, he was the most popular player here since Michael Jordan retired for good in 2003. He was the biggest star of the 21st century, and the player whose presence was missed the most at the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship in Japan.
From Hokkaido to Okinawa, he was a fan favorite throughout his Hall of Fame pro career in the nation from whence his first name derived — in reference to Kobe’s famed wagyu beef.
And this much is certain: The late Los Angeles Lakers icon, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday in California at age 41, will remain eternally popular here.
The 18-time NBA All-Star inspired countless players, including the current generation of Japan men’s national team members. Second-year pro Yuta Watanabe, who now has a two-way contract with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and NBA G League’s Memphis Hustle, said years ago that Bryant was his favorite player.
Watanabe, who scored a career-high 40 points for the Hustle in a G League contest last week, has repeated that message numerous times over the years in interviews and in private conversations.
“Say it ain’t so….Kobe,” Watanabe tweeted, mourning the legend’s death.
The second Japanese to play in the NBA after Yuta Tabuse suited up for the Phoenix Suns in 2004, Watanabe’s childhood included many mornings spent watching Lakers games on TV at his home on Shikoku island due to the time difference on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean.
From Jinsei Gakuen High School in Kagawa Prefecture to St. Thomas More School, a college-preparatory institution, in Connecticut, to George Washington University to the pros, the 203-cm Watanabe embodies the gutsy, hard-working persona Bryant displayed over 20 NBA seasons (1996- 2016), five of which ended with the Lakers capturing titles.
“You are the reason why I started dreaming to be a NBA player. Rest In Peace,” Watanabe wrote on Instagram.
By all accounts, Bryant conducted insane early-morning workouts, pushing his body to the limit. His scoring exploits carried him to third place on the all-time list with 33,643 points, including an 81-point game in January 2006 against the Toronto Raptors, which was as close as anyone has gotten in decades to Philadelphia Warriors center Wilt Chamberlain’s historic 100-point achievement against the New York Knicks in March 1962. Current Lakers superstar LeBron James surpassed Bryant on the all-time list Saturday.
“I have nothing in common with lazy people who blame others for their lack of success,” Bryant once said. “Great things come from hard work and perseverance. No excuses.”
Similarly, he once described his approach to life this way: “I can’t relate to lazy people. We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you.”
Which is why his distinct work ethic endeared him to basketball coaches, players and fans throughout Japan. He was admired for his all-out effort. Nobody ever accused him of taking shortcuts. In fact, he was universally respected for his work ethic, though some people thought his intense will to win bordered on insanity — or even crossed that line.
Nevertheless, people identified with his drive, his internal motivation, his fighting spirit. These traits were defining characteristics for the son of Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, whose basketball career included stops in the NBA and Europe (highlighted by seven seasons in Italy) before becoming a coach.
Repeatedly, the elder Bryant spoke about Kobe as an example of what it takes to succeed when he coached the Tokyo Apache during his four seasons at the helm (2005-09) in the bj-league era.
“This has nothing to do with basketball,” Joe Bryant said in 2007, discussing Kobe’s intense running regimen. “We are talking about the program that he runs on the track, a six-week program, and we gave them a little piece the other day and they were (huffing and puffing).
“I want to be able to get them through that and get them into marathon shape so you don’t get tired at all. It’s like a marathon runner’s (stamina).”
The players responded, becoming more dedicated and committed to their conditioning drills and workouts. As a result, the Apache transformed into a better team and earned back-to-back championship runner-up finishes in Bryant’s final two seasons with the club.
In April 2007, then-Takamatsu Five Arrows coach Motofumi Aoki, who was named the bj-league Coach of the Year that season for the expansion club, commented on why Kobe was so popular, issuing remarks that resonate with fans throughout Japan.
“Who’s your favorite NBA player?” Aoki was asked.
“Kobe Bryant,” Aoki told The Japan Times, “because he can score a lot, 50 points in every game. A player who can score is a very attractive player.”
Retired Japanese-American guard Darin Satoshi Maki, who grew up near Los Angeles as a diehard Lakers fan, spent a large portion of his pro career with the Apache playing under the elder Bryant. As a result, he got to observe Kobe’s never-wavering dedication in the gym.
“I remember our very first season under Joe Bryant, he took the Japanese players for a mini camp at the Lakers’ practice facility where the (WNBA’s) LA Sparks were practicing at the time,” Maki recalled to The Japan Times on Monday. “We got there early and Kobe was all by himself, drenched in sweat, and Jelly reminded us how we had to put in the extra hours to be great. We heard the stories on TV and the internet but to see it in person, we were just in awe of him and that kind of set the tone for us in that camp.
“From time to time, Jelly would reference Kobe to make a point. Times we weren’t working hard enough or when he thought we weren’t seizing the moment. I thought (guard) Cohey (Aoki) especially took those stories to heart and really elevated his game. A lot of times it was funny too, at practice the day after Kobe’s 81-point game, Jelly had to remind us who he got that from.”
Former Saitama Broncos bench boss Tracy Williams, whose ex-club now competes in the B. League’s third division, summarized how Japan’s basketball community (and elsewhere) has embraced Bryant over the years: with open arms.
“Basketball is a fraternity and one of our greatest ‘frat’ brothers and his daughter tragically left us today,” Williams, who once played for the Harlem Globetrotters, wrote on Facebook.
Beyond his impressive basketball skills that excited fans, he touched the hearts of Japanese people in a different way. In 1998, he donated money toward Great Hanshin Earthquake recovery efforts. Then, in 2001, he traveled to Kobe and was honored as friendship ambassador.
Sendai 89ers bench boss Dai Oketani, who became a head coach at age 28 near the midway point of the bj-league’s first season (2005-06 with the Oita HeatDevils), and has held top coaching posts ever since, reflected on Bryant’s death on Monday.
“This is so sad,” Oketani, who piloted the Ryukyu Golden Kings to a pair of bj-league titles, told this newspaper. “My son loves Kobe and is inspired by his Mamba mentality. He always plays with Mamba shoes.
“Kobe not only played hard, but he also tells us how to work hard and how to get tougher. We just lost a special guy. R.I.P.”
Kyoto Hannaryz assistant coach Tetsuya Takahashi also shared his thoughts on Kobe’s life and legacy.
“I don’t know why he was loved by a lot of people in Japan,” Takahashi told The Japan Times. “But I can say he was not only an athlete. His attitude to compete in basketball games impressed us. Definitely, it was different from other players.”
Takahashi, born in 1985, grew up knowing about Bryant, saying it was Kobe’s generation.
“When we started playing basketball he was a young star and got his first championship ring,” Takahashi recalled. “So many coaches and players who are in the B. League grew up with his success stories.”