The NBA has always been a big man’s game. Even today, fans love to root for big men — the bigger the better. Just consider journeyman center Boban Marjanovic. Despite playing less than 10 minutes per game over the course of his career, the 7’4″ Marjanovic remains a fan favorite, and even landed a role in the most recent John Wick movie.
Yet despite the enduring popularity of centers, many basketball fans would struggle to name the tallest player to ever get drafted into the NBA. That’s because that player never actually got to suit up for a game. Here we take a closer look at the aborted NBA career of Yasutaka Okayama.
Yasutaka Okayama’s upbringing and early years
As you might be able to guess from his name, Okayama is of Japanese descent. While in junior high and high school in Japan, Okayama practiced judo, earning a second-degree black belt in the martial art.
He didn’t take up basketball until he was 18, as a freshman at Osaka University of Commerce. After two years, Okayama left for the United States in 1975.
There he attended school for two years at the University of Portland, where he joined the men’s basketball team. Yet team doctors soon diagnosed him with a condition known as gigantism. Because his body was still growing, there was concern about putting too much stress on it, and Okayama never suited up for a single game with the Pilots.
The 1981 NBA draft
After returning to Japan, doctors were able to successfully treat his gigantism. He soon began playing for Japan Basketball League team the Sumitomo Metal Sparks.
Meanwhile, Okayama was still receiving some interest from NBA scouts — particularly scouts from the Golden State Warriors, who were intrigued by Okayama’s size.
The Warriors ultimately selected Okayama in the 1981 NBA Draft. Of course, he wasn’t exactly a high draft pick — but rather the 10th pick of the eighth round.
In other words, the Warriors saw him as having an outside chance of success at best. Okayama himself knew that there was only a slim chance he would end up making the cut for the Warriors’ roster.
If he had taken the chance and headed back to the States to try and fight his way into the league, it would have been giving up his place on the Sumitomo Metal team and the Japanese national team. In the end, with only a poor knowledge about how NBA contracts worked, Okayama decided that the smartest thing for him was to remain in Japan.
In the end, Okayama put together a great career in the Japan Basketball League. He guided the Sparks to a championship victory in the 1982-1983 season, while also taking home MVP honors.
In addition, he also twice led the league in scoring. Although Okayama spent eight years on the Japan national team, circumstance conspired to keep him from ever competing on an Olympic stage.
Legacy in the NBA
Despite never having played in a single game, Okayama still holds a place in NBA history. To begin with, at 7’8″, he remains the single tallest player ever drafted.
Equally importantly, Okayama was the first Japanese player to be drafted in the NBA. In fact, until the Washington Wizards drafted Rui Hachimura with the ninth pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, Okayama was the only player from Japan ever drafted into the league.
The 64-year-old Okayama had a graceful response to Hachimura entering the league last year. “I was drafted in the eighth round, he’s a first-rounder,” Okayama told the Japan Times. “He’s genuinely the first Japanese.”
It’s worth noting, however, that technically neither Okayama nor Hachimura were the first Japanese athlete to ever play professional basketball in the United States.
Back in 1947, the New York Knicks drafted Japanese player Wataru Misaka, who played a total of three games for them. The catch is that back then the Knicks were part of the pre-NBA league known as the Basketball Association of America.