It might have just been an NBA preseason opener, but based on the energy radiating from 20,000 fans packed into Saitama Super Arena, you may have been fooled into thinking you were witnessing a playoff game. Such was the scene last week at the NBA Japan Games 2019 Presented by Rakuten — a pair of preseason contests between the Houston Rockets and the 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors — that marked the first NBA action in Japan since 2003.
An authentic NBA experience
Despite the unfamiliar location, the NBA brought the action to ensure Japanese fans received an authentic NBA experience. Team dancers and performers all made the journey across the Pacific, pumping up the capacity crowd with acrobatic trampoline dunk shows, dance performances and high octane halftime shows.
The comedic antics of the team mascots were particularly popular with the Japanese crowd, who hung on to every move with laughter and cheers as they performed flips, dunks and laps around the stands, launching NBA merch into fans’ outstretched hands.
Saitama Super Arena was the place to be for basketball-loving celebrities: Tennis sensations Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori joined Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani courtside, along with F1 superstar Lewis Hamilton and model and TV personality Rola. Also in the crowd were a number of sumo wrestlers including former yokozuna Konishiki, and a host of Japanese celebrities, such as Yu Sawabe and Reina Triendl.
Before the game on October 8, Mikitani addressed the crowd of 20,000 basketball enthusiasts gathered at the stadium, who responded with roaring applause for Rakuten and the NBA’s successful campaign to bring the world’s premier basketball league back to Japan. And with that, the games began.
A tale of two comebacks
It was the first time in Japan for most of the players on the court, and they were as excited to be in the arena as the fans. In their first NBA action since the end of last season, the Raptors didn’t hold back in game one.
James Harden immediately had the crowd on a string with his unique and charismatic play style, dominating the first game with 34 points in just 27 minutes and solidifying the Rockets’ lead through half-time. Despite Harden’s barrage, the Raptors were never far behind, waiting until the final quarter of the game to make their push. With six minutes to go and youthful prospects from each side playing out the game, the Raptors took the lead for the first time in the half, eventually clinching the 134-129 victory to chants of “Let’s go Raptors” from the stands.
Houston raced to a quick lead at the beginning of the second game, but Toronto soon put a stop to the breakaway, leading for the majority of the game. A Raptors sweep was looking likely until a rally by the Rockets had the scoreboard tied up at the end of the third quarter. A tense final quarter saw rookie guard Chris Clemons sink a series of 3-pointers to help seal game two for Houston 118-111.
A major milestone for Rakuten and the NBA
The games were not only a return to form for the NBA in Japan, but also a sign of things to come for basketball fandom in the region. Both games were livestreamed to fans in Japan for free through Rakuten and the NBA’s freshly announced service, NBA Rakuten.
The new service combines all of the existing NBA broadcast services available in Japan into one app, alongside news, stats and NBA talk shows. The project aims to connect and strengthen the Japanese basketball community with features like live public chat during games.
“It’s about top-notch basketball, but it’s also about entertainment. It’s about music, it’s about fashion,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told media before the games. “What we’re trying to do with Rakuten is build the NBA brand into a lifestyle brand.”
Silver recognized that for many fans, the games were a long time coming: “I’m sorry that there’s been such a long gap,” he said. “But we’re back.”
Channeling fans’ passion
Going by the players reaction to the warm reception they received on the trip, it’s safe to say that both fans and players alike were thrilled by the experience. “It was my first time in Japan, so for me it was exciting. The whole team was excited to be here. It was a great show and the fans showed up and made it fun for us,” Raptors forward Pascal Siakam told media after the game. “That was awesome.”
Rockets fan favorite Harden felt it too: “It was amazing… They brought the energy tonight. They were excited from the beginning of the game.”
Toronto’s Norman Powell summed up the Japan tour for the whole team. “It was a lot of fun. The atmosphere was great, the fans were amazing. We really enjoyed our time out here.”