Yuta Tabuse has groupies. The rest of the Albuquerque Thunderbirds don't.
The Tabuse fans loom in NBA Development League arenas across the country, waiting to catch a glimpse of Japan's version of LeBron James - or Elvis Presley.
One of the big concerns for T-Bird Yuta Tabuse in his bid to return to an NBA roster is his undersized frame. Tabuse said he has learned to guard bigger players by using his quickness and good positioning. "I'm 5-foot-9 and that's with my shoes on," said Tabuse. (Michael J. Gallegos/Tribune)
The thing about Tabuse is his popularity has expanded beyond the adoration simply handed down to an athlete.
In Japan, Tabuse is a groundbreaker - the first-ever Japanese player to ever run up and down an NBA court.
That has made him a celebrity, a national icon, a rising star.
|THE TABUSE FILE
Name: Yuta Tabuse
Position: Point guard, Albuquerque Thunderbirds
Weight: 165 pounds
College: Brigham Young-Hawaii
T-Bird Statistics: 6.1 points, four assists, one steal per game.
The Buzz: Tabuse became the first Japanese-born NBA player after his four-game stint last season with the Phoenix Suns.
Endorsements: Nike Japan, EA Sports Japan, Jomo (a Japan-based gas company)
Comparisons by teammates and team officials: Elvis, Ichiro Suzuki, a rock star.
Thunderbirds coach Michael Cooper said he notices large groups of fans at every away game chanting for Tabuse.
"It's like he has a cult following," Cooper said. "In Tulsa, we had 30 people screaming his name. That's how big he is."
Tabuse became the first Japanese-born NBA player when he played four games for the Phoenix Suns last season.
This short stint turned the 5-foot-9, cheetah-quick guard into a can't-miss candidate for endorsements and billboards in his homeland. Tabuse, 25, has deals with Nike Japan, EA Sports Japan and Jomo, a Japanese-based gas company.
"I'm really not that big yet," Tabuse said modestly. "But I'm getting popular."
Close to 20 Japanese media members visited the Thunderbirds' training camp for Tabuse updates, team President Billy Widner said.
Thunderbirds teammates and officials have compared Tabuse to stars such as Elvis, Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and an arbitrary rock star of your choice.
Makoto Nomura, Tabuse's agent, said the Japanese have found a breezy new sports star to steal popularity from native baseball stars.
After taking a picture of the Albuquerque Thunderbirds' Yuta Tabuse, Hiromi Williams (right) and her 2-year-old son, Daniel, watch the player warm up. "I heard a lot about him when I lived in Japan two years ago," said Williams. "He's the first one (Japanese player) to make the NBA. I'm very excited." (Michael J. Gallegos/Tribune)
"Ichiro came, Hideki Matsui (of the New York Yankees) came, and Japanese baseball players aren't fresh anymore," said Nomura. "People have kind of been waiting for an athlete from another sport, and Yuta's the guy."
All this for a guy who plays in a remote league not exactly topping any charts with U.S. fans. Most D-League don't draw more than 2,000 fans per night. The T-Birds probably had fewer than 500 bodies in the stands at their last two games at Tingley Coliseum.
"Here we have this rock star playing in Tingley Coliseum," Thunderbirds guard Tony Bland said.
Tabuse (his full name is pronounced YOU-ta Ta-BOO-See) might not run the floors of D-League digs for long. He simply has too much marketing value at the NBA level.
Look at China's Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets' 7-foot-6 center. He's an All-Star, though it could be argued there are several centers as good or better. The NBA knows that people like different flavors, and Yao is as exotic as it gets.
The Thunderbirds recognize this, as evidenced by Friday's home-game promotion against Tulsa - Tabuse posters for the first 1,000 fans.
"I think the NBA wants to market me," said Tabuse, who speaks fluent English. "That's good for the NBA and for me. My goal is to make the NBA."
Tabuse, who played one season for Brigham Young-Hawaii in 2001-02, has jumped from different NBA training camps before landing with the Thunderbirds.
Yuta Tabuse takes time after a T-Birds practice to relax and gather his thoughts. Tabuse is considered by coach Michael Cooper to be a solid fundamental player. Tabuse is hoping to add some scoring punch to aid his return to the NBA level. (Michael J. Gallegos/Tribune)
After being cut by the Suns midway through last season, Tabuse was the last player cut in this year's Los Angeles Clippers camp.
Tabuse must take the long road to the NBA, but he's inching toward his goal with determination - and on-court smarts.
Cooper and teammates praise his uptempo style of play. He doesn't light up the stat sheet - 6.1 points and four assists per game - but he provides punch and quickness off the bench.
"He's making the game happen as it's supposed to," Cooper said. "He automatically changes the game because of his quickness and distributing the ball. He's the best fundamental player I've been around in a long time."
Tabuse, who shares time at point guard with Bland, said he enjoys his role with the team.
"I bring energy," Tabuse said. "I know what I have to do when I enter the game, to change the tempo."
Nomura, also Tabuse's best friend, houses the guard in a two-bedroom apartment in the Northeast Heights.
The two grab a latte from Starbucks every day before practice, and for the most part, Tabuse - who sports a bushy, black haircut - is unobtrusive. A big day might include lifting weights and staying home at night.
While teammates eat at McDonald's and other American food joints, Tabuse prefers Asian grub. He isn't much into the party scene.
Yuta Tabuse (center, with ball) is the true and maybe only celebrity on the Albuquerque Thunderbirds' roster. Tabuse is the first Japanese player to see action in the NBA, and that accomplishment has given him celebrity status in Japan - and in the NBA Development League. (Michael J. Gallegos/Tribune)
"(My teammates) like to go to the clubs at night," Tabuse said. "I don't like to do that much. I like to relax."
Teammates say he recently shrugged off his on-the-road privacy by having dinner with the team at T.G.I. Fridays.
"I think he's starting to come out of his shell," Cooper said. "When we're in the airport, I usually see him walking alone, in his own little world. He'll have his headphones on or his head in books.
"But he's starting to interact more. He's involved in some jokes."
Tabuse enjoys a calmness in the U.S. he rarely sees when he visits Japan every summer. There, he becomes victim to the buzz he has created - photo shoots, signing autographs on the street, fulfilling obligations that come through endorsements.
Some of the Tabuse hubbub has filled Japan since his days as a guard at Noshiro Kogyo High School in Yokohama, Japan. There he was sort of a Japan version of a LeBron James, minus the 6-foot-8 frame. Tabuse never lost a high school game, averaging 25 points a contest and playing in front of 10,000 or more fans.
Playing in Albuquerque is, well, different.
"In Japan, people come up to me because they know who I am," Tabuse said. "But here, they don't do that. I'm not that big (in the United States).
"And I'm happy with that."
This Tabuse basketball saga almost never surfaced. If not for BYU-Hawaii's English-speaking program, Tabuse said he might have stayed in Japan.
His move to the U.S. has created huge ripples in Japan's interest in basketball, but you wouldn't know it by meeting Tabuse.
His best quality is an unassuming charm, players say.
"I've played around guys from different countries, and they always seem to be in a shell," Bland said. "But he's really approachable. He's not afraid."
Maybe it's appropriate that Tabuse shows no fear. The first syllable of his name, Yu, means brave in Japanese, Nomura said.
What rests on his shoulders probably takes a dash of courage, too.
"I feel like I'm representing a whole country here," Tabuse said. "I just have to stay myself, and I'm determined to keep doing it."