The Olympic flag and Japanese flag at closing ceremony of 2021 Summer Olympics

Olympic flag and Japan flag during the Closing Ceremonies at the Tokyo Summer Olympic games Aug. 8, 2021.

Olympic athletes toil years to earn spots in competitions so dramatic some are judged by the snick of a shutter.

The patience required for journalists is less heightened but very real. Writers at the Games have to wade through travel, regulations and, uh, social-media rumors about sex-proof beds. Writers stateside must search for thrilling stories about local athletes who are often anonymous while harboring and honing elite skills.

Ben Cohen of The Wall Street Journal stalked one such story, only have it vanish … then lead to another.

Wall Street Journal sports reporter Ben Cohen

Ben Cohen

The author of an Andre Agassi-blurbed book about hot streaks, Cohen covers several sports for the Journal, including pro basketball and college football. When in 2018 he came across an American-born basketball star who became a naturalized citizen of Japan, Cohen set a Google Alert, closely followed Japanese basketball and waited … only to have the story fall apart before the Olympics.

“I figured the story was dead,” Cohen told me.

But that work led Cohen to discover another player, which is how he came to report the surprising story of Hugh Watanabe, a former American college basketball player with an injury-marred career, a twisty-turny family history and a berth on the Japanese national team. Cohen arranged a Zoom interview with Watanabe, chased down details and worked with colleagues to sharpen the story to a fine point.

Cohen agreed to talk to Storyboard about how the story came together and lessons learned, including the value and challenges of writing short. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.(Editor’s note: The story is behind a paywall. A few short excerpts are included as examples of the writing.)

 

Japanese-American Hugh Watanabe playing on the Japanese Olympic basketball team

Japanese-American Hugh Watanabe playing for the Japanese Olympic basketball team

The Olympics are often home to unusual stories, but Hugh Watanabe’s is especially full of twists. How did this story get on your radar?
This story was in my notebook for such a long time that it was originally about someone else.

I happened to be in Tokyo working on another piece in 2018 when I learned that a guy named Nick Fazekas was one of the star players for Japan’s national basketball team. This struck me as odd. I remembered him playing in the NCAA tournament, but I didn’t remember him being Japanese. As it turned out, he wasn’t. He became a naturalized citizen right before Japan would be hosting the Olympics. It’s not uncommon for Americans to play for other countries, but it’s highly unusual for one of those countries to be Japan, for all sorts of curious reasons that seemed worth a story. I set a Google Alert, quietly followed his career from very far away and planned to write about him in July 2020, when the timing was right and I would finally have a peg. You know what happened next. By the time I could write the story, 2020 had become 2021—and he was no longer on the team.

I figured the story was dead. What I didn’t expect was that reading clips about one unlikely Japanese-American player would lead me to another.

I’d never heard of Hugh Watanabe, so I looked up his stats, and I realized why I’d never heard of him. He went by Hugh Hogland in the U.S. And he barely played. Here was someone coming off the bench for a lousy college team, and now there was a chance that he was going to be on the court with NBA superstars like Kevin Durant and Luka Doncic. I was intrigued. I’m pretty sure that I searched for news about Japanese basketball more than anybody in the U.S. in the weeks before Olympic rosters were due. The morning that he officially, improbably made the team, I emailed his agent to introduce myself.

There are Hughs in every sport at the Olympics. But sometimes you have to look in strange places to find them.

Please describe the reporting process for this story. How many times did you talk to Hugh, and who else did you interview?
I talked with Hugh by Zoom for about 45 minutes. By then I had read pretty much everything that had been written about him, so I knew what I should ask and what I could skip to maximize our time. I also spoke with his coaches and had a few long, valuable conversations with his father and agent by phone and email. Then a round of fact-checking to confirm the reporting and get a bit more.

…I had read pretty much everything that had been written about him, so I knew what I should ask and what I could skip to maximize our (interview) time.

You pack a lot of detail in a relatively short story. What are some ways you push for memorable detail, especially when doing interviews over the phone or on a tight deadline?
I’m very lucky to have an editor, Bruce Orwall, who encourages me to follow my curiosity, which means I’m generally writing about people because they interest me, and I’m pretty transparent about what I find interesting when I’m reporting. For example, when Hugh told me that his parents met because his mother won a free trip to Hawaii on the Japanese version of Family Feud, I believe my response was something along the lines of: “No way.” “No, that’s true,” he said. It was pretty obvious that I was interested in hearing more. There were a few moments like that along the way — such as learning that he somehow had two false positive COVID tests before the Olympics — when I stopped him mid-conversation to ask for more details. Then it was just a matter of asking others for their recollections of the same events. Hugh was the one who told me about the spectacular Family Feud twist, and his father was the one who remembered the episode and sent along scrapbook photos. But I have to admit that I think I sound a bit ridiculous taking credit for the reporting here.

This was one of those rare stories in which every conversation produced richer material. The tricky part was figuring out what to do with it.

There are a lot of writing flourishes I like, such as the phrase “He got hurt, got sick and got cut” and the description of Koko Head as “the world’s prettiest StairMaster.” Are there any phrases or other facets of the story you’re proud of?
The guy who scouted Hugh for the Japan Basketball Association gets his full name (Tomoya Higashino) on first reference. But for the rest of the story, he’s known by his nickname: Crusher. I believe this is basic journalism. If someone goes by Crusher, you call him Crusher.

From the story: Hugh Watanabe was completely oblivious until a teammate who had come to the University of Portland from Japan informed him that some guy named Crusher was asking about him.

Crusher had an eye for talent—and he liked what he saw.

 

One thing I particularly enjoyed is how, instead of ending on Watanabe’s father’s (admittedly great) quote about trees, you extended the metaphor for a more “written-out” ending. What made that the ideal ending?
Time and space. My plan from the very beginning was to end the story with a beat about Hugh’s investment philosophy, mostly because he gave me a hopeful quote about gold that seemed like a nice, ironic kicker. The only problem was that I couldn’t get it to work. It was too late to introduce a new idea, and forcing it was making the story too long. I was also driving myself crazy. So I deleted it. And now I was desperate. I don’t love wrapping stories in a neat little bow, and I thought at first that his father’s line about trees was a bit sappy. The truth is that I just couldn’t resist the “I’m a lumber guy” part. But staring at his quote reminded me of the forest metaphor, and that seemed more thematically appropriate. I’m not sure it was perfect, but I couldn’t think of anything pithier, and it stuck for a simple reason: The story had to run soon.

From the story: He now finds himself among the redwoods, sequoias and the biggest, strongest trees in basketball. Japan might not win a game at the Olympics. Hugh Watanabe didn’t even play in the team’s opening blowout loss to Slovenia.

But he can look past those trees and see the forest. The view has never been better.

Is there anything you learned about reporting or writing from this story you’ll apply in the future, or that other journalists might find especially useful?
One thing that I think gets lost in long-form mania is that it’s hard to write short. In fact, if it were any easier, this story would be shorter. I was lucky that my editors indulged me and let it run longer than most stuff we publish, but I know that others would have written it much longer, and I’m not sure that it would have made it much better. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but I really do believe that making a piece shorter can be a lot more work than letting it run longer. It’s often far more agonizing to cut 300 words than write 1,500 words.

That was definitely the case for this story. But like every story I write, it was a collaborative effort. I trimmed the draft by about 20%, but it was still flabby and needed to lose a couple hundred words, so I shared the Google Doc with my colleague Andrew Beaton. I find it incredibly valuable to get fresh eyes on a piece before my editor takes a look, and I’m generally looking for answers to two questions: Does everything make sense? And can anything be snappier? My top included a few paragraphs outlining the more sensational bits of Hugh’s background, but Andrew thought it was redundant and slowed down the story. He was right. That was another 10%. Then I filed the story to Bruce, my brilliant editor, who always saves me from myself. He tightened the lede some more and made the whole thing a lot punchier. By the end of the editing process, the seventh paragraph in the original draft (“If every basketball player in Tokyo formed a line…”) had become the third paragraph, and that was essential. Nobody knew who this guy was. We needed to get to the point and give people a good reason to keep reading.

From the story: If every basketball player in Tokyo formed a line in order of talent, fame and the chances they would be in the Olympics, Kevin Durant would be in the front and right behind him would be Luka Doncic. There would be a few NBA stars and then another hundred people after them. At the very back of the line would be a Japanese-American player named Hugh Watanabe.

What are you reading for inspiration right? It can be journalism, fiction … anything that strikes you.
Honestly? My own colleagues. This was a story born of FOMO. I went to Rio and Pyeongchang in 2016 and 2018 but had to skip this year’s Olympics, and the Journal’s team in Tokyo was publishing an insane amount of amazing work every day. It was delightful as a reader — and invigorating as a reporter.

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Trevor Pyle is a staff writer at the Skagit Valley Herald, a daily newspaper north of Seattle.

Further Reading