NBA’s return to Japan marks a turning point in the pandemic

SAITAMA, Japan – You’ve never heard a crowd cheer like the crowd cheers here.

In Japan, 20,000 people never lose the rhythm when it comes time to clap on a beat. They might have looked militaristic all weekend long at Saitama Super Arena if it wasn’t so clear how happy everyone was watching the basketball live.

They came in droves sporting jerseys from the regulars (LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook) and classics (Patrick Ewing, Kobe Bryant) in addition to dozens of Rui Hachimuras and Stephen Currys. They lined up outside the arena’s loading docks in the afternoon to greet player-laden charter buses, then stayed long after the sun went down to say goodbye.

Rui Hachimura has a complicated relationship with Japan, but he’s happy to be back

But above all, they applauded. People cheered politely while seated on the edge of their seats, a logical — and genuine — display in a county where respect for the rules and respect for visitors are tenets of the culture. There was silence during the free throws and when the announcer spoke, but after? Encourage applause. Or maybe it was congratulatory applause. It seemed reassuring.

Fans booed and hooted (and cheered) for players firing warm-up jumpers ahead of Friday’s game. It is a country that is home to game shows in which people dressed as sumo wrestlers fire fake guns at a target while riding a mechanical narwhal, but the crowd cheered a member of the dance crew wizards who did a backflip. A backflip!

It brings tears to the Olympics last summer, which fans weren’t allowed to attend. Imagine the applause.

All this dizziness was perfectly logical after years of gloom.

The Wizards and Warriors’ visit to Japan for a pair of preseason games is the NBA’s first international exposure since the pandemic began – a pair of games between Atlanta and Milwaukee in Abu Dhabi next week will follow.

It makes this weekend the first time Japanese fans have gotten to see Hachimura live since the Wizards drafted him in the first round in 2019, which was also the most recent year the NBA hosted a game. in Japan. The crowd showed their appreciation by showering Hachimura with the loudest applause of the night when he was introduced ahead of Friday’s game.

“There are a lot of NBA fans now. Tonight I feel like there were more Steph [Curry] fans – I was a bit upset,” Hachimura said after the game with a laugh. “It’s like that. But yes, it’s good. I was so happy to be able to play in front of these fans.

Hachimura’s entry into the league coincided with events that seem likely to accelerate the sport’s growth in Japan.

NBA programming has been broadcast nationwide since the 1988-89 season, and the league hosted 12 regular season games between 1990 and 2003. A 1990 contest between Phoenix and Utah was the first regular season game played outside of North America by an American sports league. , according to the NBA.

But between Tokyo hosting the postponed 2020 Olympics – where Japan’s women’s basketball team won the silver medal – this weekend’s games and the FIBA ​​World Cup in next year in Tokyo, basketball is having a moment.

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“These games were supposed to be played last year and because of the Olympics, covid, we pushed it,” said NBA Asia general manager Ramez Sheikh. “…But, I think fortunately now we have had that momentum with the Olympics and the success of the women’s team, having Rui drafted and having the World Cup next August in Tokyo with the Philippines and Indonesia, it’s pretty awesome. It’s great for the game, it’s great for the swing.

All that momentum seems to be concentrated inside Saitama Super Arena at the moment.

The crowd’s applause was more than an expression of thrill, it was also the most hygienic way to show support while the pandemic continues. In Tokyo, it’s still rare to see someone walking around without a face covering, even outdoors, and fans in the arena were required to cover up.

This weekend’s exhibition comes as Japan prepares to allow individual visitors, regardless of their vaccination status, to re-enter the country on October 11 after a phased reopening that began in May.

The timing of the games contributed to the feeling, from an outsider’s perspective, that the country is at a turning point. Those who were deprived of basketball and celebrating Hachimura during the Olympics shook the stands at the Saitama Super Arena this weekend.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who experienced a locked-down Tokyo as a member of Team USA’s coaching staff during the Summer Games, felt the difference when the crowd cheered Hachimura on Friday.

“You see how popular he is, when he spoke to the crowd they went crazy. It was a great moment,” Kerr said. “The game has been global for a long time, but the more international stars we can attract , the more popular the game becomes in that particular player’s country. Hopefully they will get more and more players from Japan for the NBA because you can see it’s a basketball crazy country here. People love that. It’s fun to be part of it.

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