Your chances of ever playing in the NBA are minuscule if you're shorter than 5'10" (Denver's Earl Boykins is currently the lone exception) or the product of a Division II college (there are seven in the 360-player league) or from a basketball backwater like Japan (which has delivered precisely zero players to the NBA).
If you have the misfortune to be all of these things at once--a 5'8" Japanese man who played a single season at Brigham Young-Hawaii--your lifelong dream of making the NBA is worse than ridiculous. It's downright sad.
"Yes," agrees Yuta Tabuse, a diminutive Don Quixote from Japan. "Everyone said that to me. I didn't listen."
Which is how the 5'8" Tabuse (pronounced ta-BOO-say) earned a roster spot as a backup point guard for the Phoenix Suns last week, at which time the 24-year-old announced that his next ambition is simply to remain with the Suns: "To be allowed on the bench throughout the season." (On Monday, Tabuse was placed on the injured list with a strained right quadriceps.) This is his idea of NBA trash talk? "No, we don't do that in my country," says Tabuse. "It is rude."
All Japanese humility off the court, Tabuse is a one-man Rucker tournament on it. It's a disarming combination. His no-look passes say Yo Mama, while his birth certificate reads Yokohama.
"Asian players are usually very mechanical," says Tabuse's college coach, Ken Wagner. "Yuta plays with a lot of creativity."
Tabuse acquired his playground flair without benefit of a playground. "In Japan there are no basketball courts on--how to say--the street," he says. "We only have them indoors." So he learned basketball as some people learn to cook: from TV. "I tried to be like Magic Johnson with the no-look passes," he says.
He was already his nation's most famous basketball player as a teenager, when he led Noshiro Kogyo High to three consecutive national championships. "Yuta, in Japan, is like Freddy Adu in the U.S.," says Japanese writer Yoko Miyaji, Tabuse's biographer. "He's the country's one superstar in what is, nationally, a minor sport."
Tabuse went to BYU-H even though his only tie to Mormonism is a first name that sounds like Utah. "The NBA," confirms Wagner, "was his dream when he arrived."
But Tabuse's college career was inauspicious to say the least: "First year," says Tabuse, "I redshirt. Second year, I have herniated disk." He didn't play a game until his third year, when he finished sixth in D-II in assists, after which he left to pursue his dream with the Toyota Alvark of the Japanese Basketball League and the Long Beach Jam of the American Basketball Association. Last year Tabuse was cut from the Nuggets during training camp but took inspiration from the 5'5" Boykins.
Since then? "The guy has worked his rear off," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni says of Tabuse. And to judge by Yuta's wispy physique, this appears literally to be the case. He's listed at 165 pounds, but 20 of that is uniform. He's officially 5'9", but at least one of those inches is haircut. The scouting report on Tabuse: Body by fugu (the poisonous Japanese blowfish), game by FUBU.
But Tabuse is more pop than hip-hop. "When he got here, he was quiet and didn't speak much English," says Wagner. "Then the team went to sing karaoke one night, and he got up and belted out a Backstreet Boys song."
Ten days ago Tabuse was unheard of in the U.S. But 30 Japanese reporters attended his NBA debut at America West Arena, as did Tabuse's parents, Naoto and Setsuko. The game, against the Atlanta Hawks, was televised live in Japan on two networks. Tabuse scored seven points in 10 minutes. "That night," he says, "I am most happiest. How to say? It is the best moment of my life."
He now seems poised to join Hello Kitty and Ichiro as iconic Japanese exports to the world. Tabuse unconvincingly demurs: "No, Ichiro is much bigger. Ichiro is biggest."
"I told Yuta not to be embarrassed by all the attention," says Suns starting point guard Steve Nash. "He's such a good guy, his teammates won't resent it."
"He's just a great, feel-good story," concurs D'Antoni. "But that's not why he's here. He's here because he can play."
"I want to give a dream to the children," says Tabuse. "Because obviously I am small, but I can play at this level."
At the Suns' game in Philadelphia last Friday, 23-year-old student Fuminori Kobayashi of Osaka wore a Tabuse jersey with the price tag still on it. "I got it in Phoenix," said Kobayashi. "Then I flew here to Philadelphia. Tomorrow I follow him to New Jersey. Then to Chicago. Then I fly home."
He was holding a sign hand-lettered in kanji characters above a photo of Tabuse. The student slowly ran a finger along the characters, solemnly translating as he went: "It says: Japan's ... basketball ... dreamer."
• For a collection of Steve Rushin's columns, go to si.com/writers.