My Basketball GOAT Is 5-Foot-4

One problem with women’s basketball’s recent forays into the mainstream is that I, proud sports iconoclast, must develop increasingly eclectic basketball tastes in response. In the same way a slang phrase dies the moment it is uttered by one of your parents, women’s basketball no longer interests me when Gus Johnson or Jason Benetti is calling it on Fox. Not Fox Select+ or Fox Sports Extra Network 2 on a Friday at 10:30 p.m. Real Gus Johnson on regular Fox. Single-digit channel Fox! What happened to the game I love? So you have fun with your superteams, your Caitlin Clarks, your Angel Reeses, your Dawns, your Taras. I remember when I thought all that stuff was cool, like, I don’t know, three years ago. MY favorite women’s basketball team is actually from Japan. Yeah, that’s right. Japan. You probably wouldn’t know them.

Or maybe you would: At the last Summer Olympics, I wrote about the Akatsuki Five, eventual silver medalists and the most entertaining team at the tournament to my mind. Their fluid style set them apart in international play, where there are few opportunities for a team to build chemistry. Japan made basketball as pleasant as it can be: The team’s speedy guards beat defenders off the dribble, fed each other saucy passes, knocked down a million threes, and simply had the juice.

They were coached by Tom Hovasse, a 6-foot-8 American who has since left to coach the Japanese men’s team. I bring up Hovasse’s height because the first thing you notice about the Japanese women’s national team is how tiny most of the players are and how well they work around that limitation. At the Tokyo Olympics, the roster averaged 5-foot-9 with no player taller than 6-foot-1. If last weekend’s Olympic qualifying tournament is any indication, they’ll send a slightly smaller group to Paris. Dragging down the height average is my new hero: short queen and qualifying tournament MVP, the 5-foot-4 Mai Yamamoto, who punched Japan’s ticket back to the Olympics.

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For schedule and salary reasons, the WNBA doesn’t attract as much international talent as it could, so it often feels like you’re missing out on a second universe by only paying attention to the domestic league. WNBA players who spend time overseas return with tantalizing tales. During the pandemic, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi chatted regularly on Instagram Live, and in one of their conversations, Bird recalled Megan Rapinoe pointing out Spanish forward Alba Torrens during a game and asking Bird what Torrens’s deal was. “That’s Alba Torrens. When that motherfucker gets hot, nothing you can do. Literally nothing you can do,” she said. Taurasi agreed. “When it comes to basketball, if you’re going to limit yourself to just playing in the WNBA, there’s so much basketball that you’re not going to tap into,” she said. I long for the day the WNBA boasts a greater concentration of women’s basketball talent. Until then, we can only develop long-distance crushes on international players. In super plugged-in women’s basketball circles, Ukrainian guard Alina Iagupova is all the rage. But us 5-foot-4 Mais have to stick together. I love her. I’m hooked.

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The 24-year-old Yamamoto has two dogs, named Minto and Rachel, which is an amazing name for a dog. She wasn’t on this team at the last Olympics, though she was in Tokyo that summer, on Japan’s 3×3 basketball squad instead. Now she brings her 3×3 skills—speed, dribbling, outside shooting—to regular basketball. At the Olympic qualifying tournament, Yamamoto averaged 17 points on 62 percent shooting, and shot 9-of-14 from three across three games. In this wondrous second universe, you can cook at 5-foot-4. Go root for A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart on ESPN—I’m sure that’ll be really interesting! But I know who Rachel and I will be watching this summer.

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