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.