October was an exciting month for NBA fans in Japan. For the first time since 2003, two teams — the 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors and the perennial challenger Houston Rockets —battled it out over two preseason contests in the greater Tokyo area for the NBA Japan Games 2019 Presented by Rakuten.

The Japanese fans — many of whom had traveled across the country to witness the renaissance — were also treated to an extra evening of entertainment in the form of NBA Fan Night on October 9, 2019. Basketball enthusiasts flocked to Saitama Super Arena for the event, filling the arena with a diverse mix of families, school basketball clubs and even tourists from abroad.

Rockets center Clint Capela and former W.League champion Mao Okada sit with young fans.
Rockets center Clint Capela and former W.League champion Mao Okada sit with young fans.
Keio Senior High School brought their entire basketball club to NBA Fan Night Japan.
A well-known senior high school brought their entire basketball club to NBA Fan Night in Japan.

The evening was attended not just by Rockets and Raptors players, but also NBA Legends Chris Bosh, Shawn Marion and Hall-of-Famer Dikembe Mutombo, who had accompanied the two teams on their Japan tour.

Commentator Chris Sasaki, former W.League champion Mao Okada, Rockets swingman Danuel House, NBA Legend Dikembe Mutombo, Rockets mascot Clutch and host MC Mamushi take center court during NBA Fan Night.
Commentator Chris Sasaki, former W.League champion Mao Okada, Rockets swingman Danuel House, NBA Legend Dikembe Mutombo, Rockets mascot Clutch and host MC Mamushi take center court during NBA Fan Night.

Team dancers, cheer squads and mascots all joined the players on the court, energizing the crowd to thumping beats from the DJ. The entourage was also joined by top-tier Japanese basketball talent, including local B.League player Tomoya Ochiai and former W.League champion Mao Okada, alongside basketball-loving Japanese celebrities such as actress Kana Kurashina and male model UTA.

The event tipped off with several lucky fans joining the all-star cast on court for a series of skills challenges, three-point shootouts and team-based shooting contests, interspersed with acrobatic performances from the dunk team and launch crew, and even some dance-offs between members of the crowd. Players and mascots regularly had the crowd on their feet as they ran laps around the arena launching NBA merch into the stands.

Fans reach for a lucky autograph from Raptors’ four-time NBA All-Star Kyle Lowry.
Fans reach for a lucky autograph from Raptors’ four-time NBA All-Star Kyle Lowry.

The sporting portion of the evening was wrapped up with an appearance from Japan’s oldest active basketballer, Hiromu Arima, who — at a sprightly 94 years old — sent the crowd ballistic with a final basket from the free throw line.

At 94 years old, Hiromu Arima is Japan’s oldest active basketballer.
At 94 years old, Hiromu Arima is Japan’s oldest active basketballer.

Fans from far and wide

The event brought together NBA fans from all walks of life in a display of basketball fandom seldom seen in Japan. “My wife, my daughter and I, we all drove all the way down from Aomori,” said NBA fan Eugene. “I’m supporting Houston. Going to tomorrow’s game, too.”

Eugene and his family drove eight hours from the northern tip of Honshu to witness the rare basketball spectacle.
Eugene and his family drove eight hours from the northern tip of Honshu to witness the rare basketball spectacle.

Diehard NBA fans were in the arena early, crowding the tunnel entrance in hopes of capturing a selfie with or a signature from one of their heroes. Among them was long-time Rockets supporter Kato: “I’ve traveled to watch NBA games before in America,” he said. “But also way back when they came to Japan last, all those years ago.”

A long wait finally over: Rockets fan Kato’s first Japanese NBA experience in 16 years.
A long wait finally over: Rockets fan Kato’s first Japanese NBA experience in 16 years.

Raptors fans were out in full force too, with Hisashi from Toronto and his family eagerly waiting by the tunnels for the players to emerge. “I’m from Toronto but I live in Japan,” he said. “We went to the game yesterday, too… I want the kids to have fun, and if we can engage with the players, that would be awesome.”

Hisashi and family waiting to greet their Toronto heroes.
Hisashi and family waiting to greet their Toronto heroes.

NBA until the end of the world

The night concluded with an electrifying musical performance from Show Wesugi, the original singer of the famed ending theme song from the hit basketball anime series Slam Dunk. The anime played a major role in sparking Japan’s first basketball boom in the nineties, and holds a special place in the hearts of many of the fans who attended the evening.

As the melody of “Sekai ga Owaru Made wa…” sent a wave of nostalgia over the shimmering sea of illuminated smartphones floating above the captivated crowd, it wasn’t hard to imagine a hoops-filled future for Japan.

Show Wesugi transported fans back in time with his heartfelt rendition of “Sekai ga Owaru Made wa…” from Slam Dunk.
Show Wesugi transported fans back in time with his heartfelt rendition of “Sekai ga Owaru Made wa…” from Slam Dunk.