Tokyo Drift: Yudai Baba on Melbourne life, the United experience and more

Away from home in a foreign city, Baba is making it work off and on the NBL court.

Credit: Sam Tolhurst (@_tollywood)


Yudai Baba grew up reading Japanese basketball manga Slam Dunk, a cultural hit by Takehiko Inoue that found its peak in the 90s. The series ended in 1996, when Baba was barely a year old, but remains a cornerstone for basketball lovers all over the world. Unlike others however, Baba found a source of inspiration and advice beyond manga. Baba’s father, Toshiharu, was a former national player who coached his son during high school, and a role model as well.

“It was my father who gave me the reason to start playing basketball and I’m where I am because of him as well,” he shared with the Japan Times in 2018.

Now at 25, with dreams partly manifested into reality as a professional —following stints in Japan’s B.League and America’s G League as well as national team appearances— Baba finds himself in the National Basketball League (NBL) and adjusting to life in Melbourne, Australia, working to pursue his ultimate goal of playing in the NBA.

Baba’s trailblazing basketball journey has featured off-court obstacles, none bigger than language. To him, playing in an English-speaking country is critical to his NBA chances. He’s been improving at a steady pace, but admits it’s a work in progress.

“With basketball, I can understand most of what the coach and my teammates are saying, but once you get off the court, when you’re talking more private conversations it can be harder to understand, but I think I’m improving little by little.”

Homesickness doesn’t help either, but he’s locked in on his goal.

“I miss my friends, my girlfriend and my parents so much, but my dream is to become an NBA player, so I’ve got to improve my English, so I’m trying not to speak any Japanese with my friends or even my parents. Sometimes I text them, but I haven’t talked with those people for a long time.”

Fortunately, other lifestyle changes have been an easier ride, and it starts with coffee. “Melbourne coffee is one of the best tasting in the world,” Baba confirms.

Kenzan on Collins Street is currently Baba’s favourite restaurant, thanks to its authentic Japanese cuisine, but when he’s not eating out, cooking has been a manageable process. “It’s not hard to find my favourite Japanese food. There’s many chances to make food by myself since I came to Australia, and there’s organic stores and Japanese supermarkets, so it’s pretty easy to make food myself. I’m not feeling any stress.”

On the court, Yudai Baba has been an exciting sparkplug for the NBL’s Melbourne United this season. After joining the team through the Special Restricted Player rule this season, he has embraced his role and brought a clear defensive focus to the court.

“I believe a good defence is a good offence,” Baba said. “My mind is defence-first. I focus on defence every possession. I cherish working hard on defence, and when I play defence on the court, I feel like I’m one of the best defenders on the court, so I have confidence [in that aspect of my game].”

Thanks in part to Baba’s efforts as a stopper, Melbourne United currently ranks as the league’s top defence, according to SpatialJam. With United stacked with plenty of offensive options, it’s been pivotal that the teams supporting players buy into their roles, but with Baba, doing the little things comes second nature.

“This is my opinion. To get a championship, the important things are doing the dirty work - boxing out, defence, loose balls and rebounds. Those plays are what decides winning and losing. I don’t want to focus on the bright things — making a shot or an assist — I want to try and play hard defense and get loose balls.”

Though Baba did start four games during a stretch of games where United was particularly crippled by injury, he has mostly played off the bench in spite of his strong play. Baba’s unquestioning acceptance of his role, and relishing it, is yet another example of his exemplary self-awareness.

“My strength is bringing energy on the court. That play style is suitable as a sixth man, so I’m feeling good [about my role]. When I was playing in Japan I was also playing as a sixth man, so I’m used to it.”

Toshiharu Baba looks at his son’s potential path to America the same way. “Do you think he has a path to America being a sixth man?” Toshiharu said. “Maybe, if he becomes a ‘super’ sixth man.”

Credit: Sam Tolhurst (@_tollywood)

Yudai Baba’s trademark energy, as well as his friendly and gracious personality, has earnt him plenty of fans. While he has lots of support back home in Japan, it’s the local support that has taken him by surprise. “Some people are wearing Baba T-shirts. When I’m on the court and I look around at the fans, everybody cheers me up. It’s not everybody trash talking and talking to players, everyone here has been so kind to me and made me feel comfortable to play on the court, so that’s so nice.”

Along with the support has come plenty of nicknames. The NBL has been pushing their #BABABOOM hashtag across social media, and Corey ‘Homicide’ Williams has recently coined ‘Tokyo Drift’ as his new moniker for the speedy guard. Thankfully, Yudai approves this time.

“My nickname has been Bababoom right, so I’ve gotten used to being called that. Tokyo Drift is a brand new one for me [laughs]. It’s definitely better than Babito; my former [G League] teammates all of a sudden said that one to me, so definitely Tokyo Drift is better. The running is one of my strengths, so it represents me, it’s nice.”

He has also appreciated his United teammates’ inclusive support, with gestures such as using Japanese in their huddles helping him feel at home. With everyone being so welcoming, he finds it hard to pick out a particularly tight teammate, but there’s one that he’s spent more time with than most.

“Everybody has been kind to me. When I have an away game, we have to share rooms, so every away game I’m together with Mitch McCarron. Being in the same room, we’ve been communicating with each other about Australia and Japan, so there has been a lot of time to spend with him. He’s a nice guy.” 

Baba is also enjoying a newfound freedom under head coach Dean Vickerman, who he says gives the players plenty of input and autonomy to develop the mental side of their games.

“Coaches tend to be independent, but he’s not, coach Dean [Vickerman] and our teammates’ relationship is so good, so we communicate with each other a lot.

“Compared to my Japanese coach who was from Slovenia, he had his formations and we must execute them, but coach Dean lets us think, and asks us what we think of a situation, how should we deal with it. There’s more freedom, and it helps us improve how we think about basketball. It depends on the opponent and finding out a solution every play, against every formation. We’re not just playing, we’re playing and thinking, and it helps me improve as a basketball player.”

Having only played in Japan and America’s G League previously, Baba says that the extra international experience is paying dividends for his development, particularly when it comes to adapting to the NBL’s physical nature.

Baba’s continued improvement has made him an increasingly important piece to Melbourne’s title hopes, and simultaneously progresses him towards his other career goals. After the NBL season ends, Baba is set to join NBA compatriots Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe at the Tokyo Olympics to form the country’s most star-studded basketball roster to date. A solid performance at the event presents an opportunity to inspire a rise in the sport’s popularity within the country, a goal that is deeply important to him.

“We have to get a win, man. [Basketball’s] popularity is getting better since Rui [Hachimura] got drafted and Yuta [Watanabe] started playing in the NBA on a two-way contract, but the national team of Japan has to prove our strength, otherwise we can’t get it popular in Japan. They will have a chance to watch our game on the TV, and if we could get a win, they would be interested in basketball, so this is the first step to getting basketball popular in Japan. I hope many people watch.”

“We’ve been practicing so hard, we’re trying to be better every day. Me, Rui and Yuta, so next time we can show our strength to foreign [countries] and surprise other countries’ players. Our goal is, we have to try and win each game and play as much as we can. I’m just looking forward to playing with them.”

His other goal?

Unsurprisingly, the NBA. While his bench role and modest 6.3 points per game output may not scream future NBA star, he is indeed a star in his role. For Yudai Baba, it’s always been about the dirty work. It’s often not the biggest scorers that make the NBA jump, but those that can address a need and play off a team’s biggest stars. With a team-first attitude, a humble disposition and an insatiable work rate, Baba ticks many boxes that could see him on an NBA roster in the future.

For now, however, those qualities are United’s gain. Baba’s presence complements the team’s stars in Chris Goulding and Jock Landale as they continue to chase a NBL championship this season.


NBL Round 13

Melbourne United vs New Zealand Breakers

8:00pm Saturday, 10 April at John Cain Arena

Melbourne United vs Brisbane Bullets

7:30pm Monday 12 April at John Cain Arena

Special offer: Buy an adult ticket, get a junior ticket free (details on Melbourne United website)

Game tickets on sale now at ticketek.com.au.