Freshman Kira Watanabe Shoots for the Stars

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Courtesy of Madelyn Noh

Under COVID-19 precautions, varsity basketball player and freshman Kira Watanabe spends her first year unable to pass balls and play as a team during practice. “We lost summer programming; we lost fall programming,” Brian Barham said. “High school basketball is an adjustment, and it’s not going to happen overnight for her. But once she adjusts, look out.”

Standing at less than five feet tall, freshman Kira Watanabe doesn’t scream “basketball player” on a first glance. But all it takes is a few minutes watching her play to realize why Watanabe is the sole freshman on the varsity team who makes impressions every time she’s given a basketball.

Raised in a family of avid basketball players and spectators, Watanabe first learned to play basketball when she was 10 years old from her father, who worked as an assistant basketball coach. At first, she took part in the sport due to the persuasion of her father, but as she kept playing, she developed a genuine passion for the game. 

“It’s mainly been my dad, but even my cousins and my brother have also taught me some stuff,” Watanabe said. “Also my mom too, because she watched my dad when he was younger…so she also learned some things about basketball and she gives me tips on how I can improve my game.”

When she was still in sixth grade, Watanabe caught the attention of girls’ basketball coach Brian Barham when he first saw her play at a basketball clinic. Impressed by Watanabe’s athleticism, Barham set his sights on making Watanabe one of the Bulldogs long before she even entered Portola. 

“She has no fear of the competition,” Barham said. “And that’s sometimes rare in a 14-year-old, especially one who might not even be five feet tall. And she doesn’t care about your personal space on the floor; she will get in that.”

Watanabe also plays for OC Rhythm, a youth basketball academy, and Yonsei, a prestigious Southern California Japanese basketball organization. Teammates and coaches admire and take note of Watanabe’s undeniable talent, commitment and drive for basketball.

“At the moment, she’s definitely one of our most skilled and talented players,” teammate and senior Lauren Shiihara said. “I think that her leadership will come with more time, but she definitely makes a role model for other people to look up to, even for the older players.”

Those around Watanabe hold high aspirations for the star player who proves that skill outshines size.

“Kira is a ball player, and she’s the real deal, and she’s all about that life,” Barham said. “I mean, she has dedicated herself to the game and her training, and she is going to be the future face of our program.”