Illustration: Nanae Yamano
Nanae Yamano, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mother in the Tokyo suburbs, was bored doing laundry one morning a few years ago when she turned on her television and found herself oddly transfixed by the NBA.
It was by pure serendipity that she tuned into this 2012 playoff game between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. She was not an NBA fan. In fact she knew pretty much nothing about the NBA. Which is why her attention gravitated toward the one player who was unlike anyone else on the court in such an obvious way that even she could see it. Yamano was captivated by Russell Westbrook.
“I saw Westbrook play for the first time and thought: What a weird guy,” she said through a translator recently before adding in English: “Isn’t he weird? So weird!”
He was so weird that she hasn’t been able to stop thinking about him since. Westbrook and the Thunder have become Nanae Yamano’s obsession.
Nanae Yamono is a 43-year-old stay-at-home mother in the Tokyo suburbs. Photo: Ben Cohen / The Wall Street Journal
That is how much the basketball world has shrunk: This unlikely Oklahoma City Thunder fan lives thousands of miles and 15 times zones away from her favorite team. She has never been to Oklahoma City. Or the United States. Or anywhere outside Japan. “I don’t even have a passport,” Yamano said.
Fans gather to watch NBA games at Ball Tongue in Tokyo. Photo: Ben Cohen / The Wall Street Journal
But she has NBA League Pass, Twitter and Instagram accounts and so much time for basketball that she doesn’t have to bother clearing her schedule. “Actually,” Yamano said, “I have no schedule.” She sends her son to school, and then she watches the Thunder.
She went from not knowing anything about the NBA to knowing everything there was to know about the Thunder. By the 2016 season, she was beginning to suffer the miserable anxiety of caring way too much about sports. Like other fans, she worried about the possibility of Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City. Unlike other fans, she coped by inventing a universe in which Durant and Westbrook could peacefully coexist.
“I couldn’t write, because I’m not a writer,” she said, “so I started drawing.”
Her depictions of Durant and Westbrook were delightfully absurd. Each one was a tiny burst of unexpected and sometimes inexplicable joy.
But things didn’t work out the way she hoped. The Thunder lost to the Warriors in the playoffs that season and lost Durant to the Warriors that summer.
Yamano was always going to take Westbrook’s side in the breakup. He is her muse. His manic style of play inspires her for the same reason it once intrigued her. “He seems really unstable,” Yamano said, “but that’s actually his stable state.” That is what she adores about him and why she can’t help but feel protective of him.
Photo: Nanae Yamano
He matured into the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, and she expressed herself through her art. Yamano chronicled Oklahoma City’s season by releasing a sketch after every game—color for wins, black and white for losses—and what happened next is the kind of thing that happens when artists create something unlike anything else that already exists.
She was discovered. People started paying attention to her work. Some of those people happened to play for the Thunder.
Oklahoma City center Steven Adams thought her sketches were funny enough that he made sure they spread around the locker room. “Sent them over to the lads,” Adams said. “It’s quite unique what she’s doing.”
Adams isn’t the only player who feels that way. Domantas Sabonis once tweeted a Yamano—he’s holding Westbrook’s hand—which is one of the reasons she was bummed when he was traded not long afterward. “I really miss Sabonis,” Yamano said. But the basketball fan in her understood that Oklahoma City’s roster needed an upgrade. She was so proud of Thunder general manager Sam Presti’s ninja efforts in the off-season that she honored him with his own illustration.
Her fans ask Yamano how they can buy her work and where she lives in Oklahoma. She responds by saying it’s not for sale. And she lives in Japan.
Adams had no idea. He was extremely pleased.
“Oh, amaaaaaaazing,” he said.
Yamano says she actually prefers watching the Thunder from the other side of the world. She doesn’t think she can handle the NBA in person. “Too much,” she said through a translator, Reo Onishi, who runs a website called Bulls Fan in Japan. “I’m already crazy as is just by watching them through League Pass. If I go to a game, I don’t know what would happen to myself.”
There was one recent Saturday night game—or Sunday morning game—that was bound to stir those emotions in Yamano. She organized a small party in Tokyo anyway. Which is how she found herself inside a basketball cafe here called Ball Tongue to watch the Thunder play the Warriors.
The bar was like an NBA fever dream come to life. There were posters of Rasheed Wallace and Latrell Sprewell on the ceiling, a Westbrook jersey in the window, a pennant of Rocky the Denver Nuggets’ mascot on the wall, a life-size cutout of Penny Hardaway in the corner and a Dream Team windbreaker on the exposed pipes. The menu of mixed drinks included “The Greek Freak” (ouzo) and “Trust the Process” (vodka).
Nanae Yamano recently organized a small watch party at Ball Tongue in Tokyo. Photo: Ben Cohen / The Wall Street Journal
Yamano had advertised the event on Twitter, and she was surrounded by NBA die-hards eating their brunch of soup, potatoes and curry. She talked to herself and others throughout the game. (Her normal conversations about Westbrook and the Thunder are “usually her doing the talking and me listening,” said her husband, Ken, in an email.) She cackled when Draymond Green missed a shot. She howled during a frantic Oklahoma City possession. “Arigato gozaimasu!” she cheered for an offensive rebound leading to an open Adams jumper.
When the game was finally, mercifully over—the Warriors beat the Thunder by 32 points, Oklahoma City’s worst loss of the season—it was time for Yamano to become Picasso.
She turned her iPad into a sketchpad and only realized what she was drawing as she began to doodle with her Apple Pencil. Her take on the blowout: Paul George burying his head next to a brooding Westbrook. She applied the meticulous finishing touches, right down to confirming the style of their sneakers, and it was soon ready for display on social media. The whole process took precisely 20 minutes.
The ensuing avalanche of likes from her fans was still a little surreal to Yamano. She’s astonished that anyone—let alone the Thunder players themselves—knows who she is.
“I grew up in the countryside,” she said. “I’ve never really had a community that I belonged in. I was just a weird person—always, always.” And then she found other NBA fans online. She no longer felt alone. “It’s just a bunch of weird people like myself,” Yamano said.
Write to Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org