Big-time player

Portola High basketball star Kira Watanabe has tallied over 1,000 points and 500 assists in her career.

It only took two games for Portola High School’s Kira Watanabe to declare her commanding basketball presence to the league this season. Standing 5 feet tall – exactly half the height of a basketball hoop – she’d demonstrated an uncanny knack for sinking half-court shots over the summer.

“This makes you a legend,” coach Brian Barham confided in his senior point guard. “Take advantage of it.”

He’d seen what she could do, but the rest of the league hadn’t. Not yet.

Then came Game 1 of the season: With 5 seconds left in the half, Kira gets the ball, dribbles to Portola’s Buster the Bulldog logo at half-court and lets go a 42-foot shot. Basket!

And Game 2: Four seconds left in the half – Kira gets the ball, and with the other team now defending the logo, she fires from behind it. Basket!

“There’s something remarkable about the smallest kid on the floor being the most dangerous,” Barham says. “She’s our underdog hero.”

A legend is born

As Kira remembers it, she was always the shortest member of her team, going back to age 6. “People don’t think you can do much,” she says, recalling opponents who towered a foot over her. “But I could always run around them.”

It was her coach and father, Keith Watanabe, who saw ball-handling as the key to her success.

“Every team needs someone to get the ball from the backcourt to the shooting positions,” he says. “And that’s what Kira was good at.” Keith started training her in the driveway when she was 8, then taking her to ball-handling academies with girls of all ages. They never stopped going.

“Last year, a dad asked me: ‘How do you get her here? My daughter won’t come because she’s embarrassed to play with younger kids.’ My answer was, ‘We’re not playing basketball. We’re dribbling.’ ”

Keith eventually was named the Bulldog’s assistant coach and started a free ball-handling clinic for Kira and a few friends. Soon, kids from other schools started attending. Then members of the Portola boys varsity team. The class now draws about 25 kids each week. “The top players never miss practice,” Keith says. “If they have homework, they stay up later or do whatever it takes to get it done.”

“Kira’s like that,” he adds. “Whatever it takes.”

A 3-point legend is born

When Kira turned 11, Keith asked her to start shooting 3s in games. Why? “When you’re short, you’re more comfortable shooting when no one’s right in front of you,” he says. “If you shoot from far away, you’ll have more freedom.”

“There’s something remarkable about the smallest kid on the floor being the most dangerous. She’s our underdog hero.” – coach Brian Barham

The better she got, the farther back they practiced.

“As we got more serious,” Kira says, “he got floodlights so we could keep practicing after dark.”

Luckily, they had a long driveway.

Now, she shoots 8 to 10 feet behind the 3-point line. This season, she broke a school record with 11 3-pointers in one game. There’s a bonus, Keith says. Once you hit a couple of long shots, defenders come out to cover you. And once they do, you have more opportunity to get around them and pass or shoot.

How’s it been working?

When Kira joined the team as a freshman, Portola was a Division 4 team in the California Interscholastic Federation. Now they’re a Division 1 team, ranked among the top 10 best schools in the county – including private schools.

“That doesn’t happen without Kira,” Barham says. “Her job is to get two guys to defend her and then kick the ball to whoever is open.”

Last year, Kira helped teammate Moka Saiki become Portola’s greatest scorer of all time. This season, Kira has spread the ball around even more, surpassing the 500 career-assists mark. “She has the assist record locked up,” Barham says. “Nobody’s ever taking it from her.”

As if that wasn’t enough, she recently hit her 1,000th career point to become Portola’s second-greatest scorer of all time.

On and off the court

Kira’s superpower has always been her ability to distribute the ball. In non-basketball terms, that’s called being generous.

“Giving my teammates the chance to score gives me the most happiness,” says Kira, a 4.0 student who plans to major in biology and play basketball in college. That maturity pleases her dad – even more than sinking shots from center court.

“What she’s become as a person,” he says, “that’s what I’m proud of.”