Yuta Watanabe, Kevin Larsen, Coach Mike Lonergan among those at state visit of Japanese prime minister.
By James Irwin
Yuta Watanabe’s busy first year of college continues. On Tuesday, the George Washington University basketball player was at the White House for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States.
Invited as a sports ambassador between the United States and Japan, Mr. Watanabe—joined by teammate Kevin Larsen and GW Coach Mike Lonergan—attended a morning ceremony on the White House South Lawn that featured remarks from President Barack Obama and Mr. Abe. The 6-foot-8 freshman forward later attended a lunch at the State Department, hosted by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry.
“It was a special experience,” Mr. Watanabe said. “Not everyone can go inside the White House. I was surprised [to be invited]. I was so excited.”
President Obama leads Mr. Abe on a tour of the honor guard and fife and drum corps during the ceremony. (William Atkins/GW Today)
Mr. Watanabe is the fourth Japanese-born basketball player to play at the NCAA Division I level. He learned of the invitation a few weeks ago. Following the morning ceremony, his coach stood on the South Lawn and joked that a trip to the White House to see the Japanese prime minister wasn’t part of the sales pitch when he recruited Mr. Watanabe to attend GW.
“I did tell him, ‘You know, your embassy is here and you’ll have a great experience’—I didn’t think he’d get to go to the White House,” Mr. Lonergan said. “But this is one of those experiences that only happens at GW because of our location. These are the things [Yuta and Kevin] will remember as much as the wins and the losses when they get older.”
It was the first visit to the White House for both students.
“It was pretty exciting,” Mr. Larsen said. “When you come to GW you get chances to see a lot of important people. It was pretty unique to be able to see the president and the prime minister from Japan.”
His favorite part: Hearing Mr. Obama speak in person.
“It was kind of nice to hear his voice in real life—you hear it on TV all the time,” Mr. Larsen said. “I was pretty excited because you get to see the most powerful man in the world.”
On a sun-splashed, crowded day at the White House, the 6-foot-8 Watanabe and 6-foot-10 Larsen put their height advantage to good use. (William Atkins/GW Today)
As for Mr. Watanabe, he said his family was excited when he told them about the opportunity. Tuesday also was the first time he had seen the leader of his native country in person.
“I’ve seen the White House from the outside but this was the first time inside,” he said. “It was cool. I had a good time. It was a fun experience.”
Labeled "the Chosen One" by The Japan Times, Mr. Watanabe averaged 7.4 points and 3.5 rebounds a game in his first season in Foggy Bottom, helping the Colonials to a 22-13 overall record and a berth in the National Invitation Tournament. He earned two Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week honors and was a member of the A-10 Commissioner's Honor Roll and GW's Athletic Academic Dean's List for fall 2014 semester.
"Seeing Yuta smile, to be here and be proud of his country, I feel really good for him to have this experience," Mr. Lonergan said. "It was exciting to see a lot of Japanese-American people and people from Japan—how excited they were to get to see their prime minister here on American soil."
From left: Akie Abe, Michelle Obama, Shinzo Abe and Barack Obama wave to the crowd following Monday's ceremony. (William Atkins/GW Today)