For the first time in three years, the NBA has made its way to Japan.
Over the weekend, two of the country’s most popular teams crossed the Pacific to take part in two preseason contests in front of a sold-out crowd at Saitama Super Arena, located just north of Tokyo for the NBA Japan Games 2022 Presented by Rakuten & Nissan. The Washington Wizards – a favorite among Japanese fans since their first round draft pick of rising Japanese star Rui Hachimura – took on reigning NBA champions the Golden State Warriors, who recently renewed a multi-year partnership with Rakuten.
Strong start to the new season
Game one marked the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA international games, and two of the night’s most anticipated players took the opportunity to address fans directly. A “konnichiwa” from two-time MVP Stephen Curry of the Warriors had fans on their feet, while a short greeting from Hachimura in his native Japanese was all but drowned out by a crowd ecstatic at seeing the homegrown talent compete live.
Both stars started for their respective teams, and Hachimura led the scoreboard for the Wizards with a strong performance that elicited oohs and aahs from the energetic crowd. The teams jostled for the lead in the first half, but the Warriors eventually took control, successfully defending their advantage in the fourth quarter to win 96-87.
One highlight from the Warriors was the dominant showing from center James Wiseman, who poured in 20 points with nine rebounds.
Game two saw the Warriors take an early lead with a flurry of three-pointers and a dominating display from Stephen Curry. The Wizards weren’t ready to let go, however, and another high impact performance from Hachimura and 7-3 forward Kristaps Porzingis allowed them to quickly catch up and even create a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.
Momentum then shifted again on the back of a stellar fourth quarter from several of the Warriors young prospects, including sophomore Moses Moody, Patrick Baldwin Jr. and Mac McClung, powering the reigning champions to close the game out 104-95.
A spectacular show in Saitama
After a three-year wait, NBA Japan Games 2022 was a rare treat for local fans. The spectacle even drew a number of prominent figures from both the sporting and entertainment worlds, such as tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Francis Tiafoe and artist SUGA of South Korean boyband BTS.
Despite the unfamiliar location for NBA action, the Japan Games delivered fans an authentic NBA experience. In addition to a number of dance shows featuring both local and team dancers, the games also showcased several musical performances from high profile artists such as Japanese rockstar Miyavi and South Korean singer-songwriter BoA.
Between the two games, the stadium hosted NBA Japan Games Saturday Night 2022 Presented by Rakuten & Nissan – an event, which celebrated the game of basketball and showcased the convergence of the NBA and popular culture – in front another a sold-out crowd. After a breathtaking dunk competition between professional dunkers highlighted by a soaring slam over a person and Nissan car, Warriors and Wizards players teamed with NBA legends Richard Hamilton and Tim Hardaway for the Shooting Stars Challenge, popularized by the NBA All Star Game. Top shooters from each team then took part in the team Three-Point Contest, which perhaps unsurprisingly, was won by the duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, known for being two of the best shooters in the history of the sport.
The night was capped off with a live show from Japanese rock duo YUZU, during which self-professed NBA superfan Yujin Kitagawa, singer-guitarist for the group, debuted his brand-new song Frontier.
A game going global
The Wizards’ first round draft pick of Rui Hachimura in 2019 was a major moment for Japanese basketball fans, something made clear by the crowd’s enthusiasm at his appearance at the 2022 NBA Japan Games. The importance of the occasion was not lost on Hachimura.
“Having these two teams – especially with the Warriors being the champions – come together and play in Japan like this is really significant, not just for me and the team, but for Japanese basketball as well,” he told reporters. “I’m really thankful for that.”
The Japanese fans’ enthusiasm for their homegrown star didn’t go unnoticed by Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr.
“When you get off the plane and there’s a welcoming committee, I think that’s your first insight into that dynamic,” he said. “The game has become more global, with more and more international players each year… So I’m not surprised to see it become as big as it is. Rui on our roster, of course, coming here, coming home, plays a good part.”
The global direction of the NBA also stood out to Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
“It’s exciting. I mean, we have over 100 foreign players in the NBA, including a couple of Japanese players, Yuta (Watanabe) and Rui. I think the international component of the game has added so much in terms of not only fan interest but talent,” he remarked. “So much of the elite talent comes from overseas right now… The NBA over the last 30 years or so, it’s just become such a phenomenon worldwide, and it’s only made our league that much better.”
Going by the atmosphere in Saitama over the weekend, it’s clear to homegrown superstar Hachimura that the NBA is winning over Japanese sports fans.
“Compared to when I was a kid, I can really feel that basketball and the NBA has become a much more familiar presence in Japan. That’s something I feel having grown up playing basketball in Japan,” he revealed. “I’d be really happy to see more NBA players coming out of Japan. I want them to keep challenging everything and setting high goals for themselves.”