How the NBA Captivated Japan

The connection between the NBA, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last season, and Japan goes far back. It started in the league’s second season.

By Yoko Miyaji

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Orlando Magic compete against New Jersey Nets during the NBA Japan Games at the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo in 1996 (photograph by NBA/Getty Images)

The connection between the NBA, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last season, and Japan goes far back. It started in the league’s second season.

In 1947, the New York Knicks drafted Japanese American Wat Misaka, who played three games with the team. Then, in 1981, Yasutaka Okayama was selected by the Golden State Warriors in the eighth round of the NBA draft. However, Okayama chose not to take part in the Warriors training camp because back then, he would have been ruled ineligible to participate in the Olympics once he became a professional. 

Although initially, the ties between Japan and the NBA were weak, it has become much stronger in the last 30 years. There was a big event every 10 years, which deepened the connection each time. 

In the 1990s, the games were broadcast on NHK BS, and NBA culture spread to Japan against the backdrop of the popularity of the Dream Team and stars like Michael Jordan. It was from this time that the NBA Japan Games began to be held regularly in Japan.

In the 2000s, Yuta Tabuse joined the Phoenix Suns. With the emergence of a Japanese NBA player, something many Japanese had only dreamed of, the distance between the NBA and Japan shortened at once.

And in the 2010s, Yuta Watanabe and Rui Hachimura joined the NBA. Now two Japanese players are in the NBA at the same time. The NBA and Japan have become even closer in the last 30 years. As we marked the 75th anniversary of the NBA, I talked to three people that were directly behind spreading the popularity of the league.

Finding the NBA in a ‘toy box

Makoto Kato describes his encounter with the NBA as finding NBA in a “toy box.” In 1988, when Itochu Corporation, where Kato was working at the time, embarked on an overseas software business, he signed a packaged deal with an American lawyer which included various rights related to movies among other things. NBA-related rights were among them.

“When we stepped into the soft business, we didn’t know anything about it. We were given a package, which was almost like a toy box for us. We found NBA in it,” Kato said. 

There are three major rights related to the NBA: broadcasting rights, merchandising rights, and rights to holding live games in Japan. Kato decided that it was important for people to watch the games to spread NBA and decided to hold an NBA opening game in Japan in 1990. At the same time, he also worked on arranging TV broadcasting of the games.

The timing was good because NHK had just launched its BS satellite broadcasting in 1989. NHK BS began broadcasting nationwide four major sports from the U.S. including the NBA. Although BS broadcasting still had low recognition in Japan, the NBA games received the most response from the audience, according to Kato. 

“The NHK sports department head at the time said, ‘we receive a lot of fan letters for the NBA from first graders to 80-year-old seniors. NBA is a content best fit for NHK,” Kato recalls.

The games were broadcast four times a week when they did not overlap with MLB or NFL, and twice a week when they overlapped. He also carefully devised the broadcast schedule.

“During the three months of November, December, and January, when the NBA teams still had low recognition, we made sure that each team was evenly broadcast so as to introduce the teams. During February and March when it broadcast four games a week, we focused on teams with popular players. At that time, Michael Jordan (then Chicago Bulls) and Charles Barkley (then with the Philadelphia 76ers) were popular, so we showed their games alternatively. In April, we focused on picking up games of the teams that were likely to be in the playoffs. “

Choosing a Venue for the Japan Games

At the same time, Kato’s team planned to hold the Japan Games. In fact, the NBA initially wanted to bring to Japan the McDonald’s Championship (a competition between the NBA team and the local club team) that was held in Europe. It wanted to scout for players while spreading the popularity of the NBA in Japan. However, at that time, there were no players who could compete with NBA players, and there were no teams either. So, a plan to hold a game between NBA teams in Japan emerged. Kato negotiated the games to be of regular season and an opening game was set to be held in Japan.  

Finding the Venue and Hosting the Japan Games

The most difficult part was finding the venue because there were not many facilities in Japan that were fit to host NBA games. 

“The Yoyogi Olympic Pool Stadium was aging so there were worries about laying a temporary floor on the pool. The Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Arena and the Nippon Budokan are square-shaped so with rectangular basketball courts, there would be seats with no view.”

Kato set his eyes on Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, which was under renovation and was scheduled to reopen in 1990. He went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government many times for negotiation. At first, the officials rejected his proposal and told him that it hadn’t even chosen anyone in charge of the facility and later that it had other schedules. But Kato was persistent and eventually obtained permission to use the facility. In 1990, the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz visited Japan and played two season opening games on November 2nd and 3rd. This was the first time a major American sport had a regular season game outside of the North American continent.

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“These games were broadcast on terrestrial channel NHK. The announcer who was surprised to see that the Tokyo gymnasium with a capacity of 10,000 was full, started the broadcast saying, ‘I’m surprised to see there are so many basketball fans in Japan,’ “Kato said.  

After that, the combined popularity of the Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Michael Jordan, and basketball shoes made the 1990s a time when NBA culture was pouring into Japan. The Japan Games are also held about every two years, and in 1996, Tokyo Dome attracted nearly 40,000 spectators.

Around the time Kato had found NBA in a “toy box,” Yuta Tabuse, just started playing in the mini basketball league as a little boy. He had discovered the world of the NBA through his father’s recorded videotapes. He was immediately captivated by the NBA All-Star Game in Chicago (February 1988) and the Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons NBA Finals (June 1988) which were broadcast on TV Tokyo.

“I clearly remember being shocked, and excited, and surprised at the performances by the players, what they could do, and the atmosphere of the venue and the feeling of enthusiasm. I had never seen uniforms or basketball shoes before. It was a style I had never seen in Japan before, so I was instantly hooked on them. Their shorts were still short back then though (laughs).”  

The fact that Tabuse saw the NBA when he was just starting basketball had a big impact on his play style. The first player he admired was Magic Johnson. He imitated Johnson’s trademark move “the no-look pass.”

“Looking back, I’m glad it was NBA that I was first attracted to. I liked playing and imitating so the fact we had NBA (to emulate), made a big difference.”

It was soon after that NHK BS began broadcasting NBA. He now could watch new games every week and found more players to admire. It was a time when NBA quickly rose to popularity, helped by the influence of the Dream Team.” 

“I was able to watch games through NHK BS every week. The Dream Team had become a phenomenon attracting even people who didn’t play basketball. I realized NBA was hugely popular.” said Tabuse. 

It was because of the TV broadcast that Tabuse became hooked on NBA and got into basketball and later decided to aim for NBA. Tabuse’s life was greatly changed by watching the NBA broadcast.

Time at Phoenix Suns

Tabuse, who made the Phoenix Suns roster in 2004, played in his first NBA game against the Atlanta Hawks on November 3.

“I clearly remember the moments such as when I received the uniform, the warm-ups, and when my name was called on the bench. Those were the moments I remember most, even more than when I made a shot.” 

Tabuse found the NBA as exciting as he had imagined it since his childhood.

“It wasn’t just playing basketball, but every day was exciting and intense, and challenging. You could see why the place was said to be the highest peak in the world.”

At the time, he was focusing and trying to leave good results to remain on the roster and had no time reveling in his achievement. But that is why the month and a half he was part of the Phoenix Suns is his lifetime asset, he said.

“I wish I could’ve stayed on a little longer, but it’s my lifetime asset that I was able to see different worlds and experience various things.”

Yuta Watanabe was 7 or 8 when he first saw an NBA game. He began watching the games with his father who used to record them from NHK BS to watch on the weekends. It was a time when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal played for the Los Angeles Lakers and led the team to three consecutive championships. Watanabe became fascinated with Kobe straightaway. 

“I liked Kobe the minute I saw him. I didn’t know why but looking back, I realize there was something about him that drew even kids.”

Right away, Watanabe declared to his dad he wants to be an NBA player. His father did not laugh at his audaciousness. Instead, he said, “I see. If you have such a big dream, you better practice more.” With his father at his side, he began training with NBA as his goal. 

Watanabe was 10 when Tabuse became the first Japanese to stand on the court at NBA regular season game. Watanabe was glued to the TV watching the game.

“A Japanese player was playing in the world I had been watching over the TV. I thought, oh, we can do it as well. I remember thinking it was amazing to see a Japanese player on the court.” 

He met Tabuse six years later, in his second year of high school. It was when around 40 candidates for the Japanese national team were invited to a training camp. He didn’t have a chance to practice with Tabuse, as Tabuse was in Group A and Watanabe was in Group C, but they passed each other in the corridor. The moment Watanabe saw Tabuse, he thought, “Oh, that’s Tabuse!” At that time, Watanabe was already 196 cm tall and more than 20 cm taller than Tabuse. “To be honest, he had such an aura that it didn’t cross my mind that he was short or anything like that.”

14 Years After Tabuse’s NBA Debut

In 2018, 14 years after Tabuse’s NBA debut, Watanabe himself stood on an NBA court. He signed a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies and made his official debut against the Suns on October 27 (28th Japan time). The Grizzlies were leading by 25 points with four and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

“With the game out of reach, I was thinking ‘I’m going to play today.’ I felt nervous and excited that finally, I get to stand on the court. I remember when I shot two free throws and when I missed the ally-loop. I remember chatting with my family right after the game on the LINE app. I remember that day so clearly. At the same time, it was a day I began having the desire to play in a more competitive game.”

For Watanabe, who is still competing in the NBA, it is where he faces challenges every day. Even now, he sometimes remembers his childhood admirations. For example, he remembered his first year in the NBA in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. He stood on the same court as Dirk Nowitzki, who was playing his final season. As a kid, Nowitzki was Watanabe’s favorite player along with Kobe. 

“The moment I stood on the same court as Nowitzki, it felt strange. It was like, ‘Wow, that’s Nowitzki.'”

The year after Watanabe entered the NBA, Rui Hachimura was selected in the first round of the NBA draft by the Washington Wizards. Now there were two Japanese players in the NBA, something that would have been hard to imagine a little while ago. Thus, the distance between Japan and the NBA narrowed even further.

“It does feel a lot closer. I think more people are watching the NBA, and feel closer to it,” commented Watanabe. 

Of course, entering the NBA is still extremely difficult and it’s not an easy world to reach. Both Watanabe and Hachimura have reached this world as result of their tireless efforts, in addition to their talents and physical abilities.

Even so, just as Watanabe was encouraged to see Tabuse’s NBA debut, there are now boys all over Japan who are watching Watanabe and Hachimura’s play with admiration and practicing to one day enter the NBA. There may be some among them who will get to wear the NBA uniforms in the future.

Tabuse said back then he was focused on his own play and had no room to even think about how his presence in the NBA affected Japan. However, now that he’s seen how much attention Watanabe and Hachimura’s play in the NBA is getting from all over Japan, and seeing the excitement they create, he can now feel the historical significance of having Japanese players in the NBA.

“When they get drafted or make the roster, and are working hard, they give Japanese people courage, and inspiration, and give children dreams and hopes. I realize that now that I’m following them from Japan.”

What NBA Will Look Like 25 Years from Now

Watanabe says he wants Japanese children to feel close to NBA and enjoy the games through Watanabe and Hachimura’s play.

“I hope they can really enjoy watching me and Rui play. Of course, that means we need to work harder. I hope they can enjoy our situation and support us.”

Thirty years ago, it was epoch-making to see even four games a week, but now one can see all the games with NBA Rakuten’s league pass. The Japan Games, which had been absent for a while, were held again in 2019. This all started with a few people who became fascinated with NBA after they found it in “a toy box.” 

Kato helped make the NBA broadcast possible. Tabuse and Watanabe, who watched the broadcast began dreaming of playing in the NBA. Watanabe saw Tabuse join the NBA and was encouraged that a Japanese could play in the league. Even if they seem to be independent events, they are connected in history and the history is passed down to the next generation.

Twenty-five years from now, when the NBA marks its 100th anniversary since its birth, what will its world look like to the Japanese basketball players and fans? When I asked this question, Watanabe answered, “Twenty-five years from now, I wouldn’t be in the NBA. I won’t even be playing basketball. But in the next 25 years, I hope there will be many Japanese players on the court, and it would be great if all the members of the national team play in the NBA.”

This article is a translation of the Japanese original published in Number Web on February 28, 2022. 

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