SLAM DUNK! -- The NBA in Japan

by Paul Abramson

International sports are crossing borders like never before. And each sport is increasing in technological sophistication (e.g. graphite tennis rackets, downhill racing gear, or computer simulated America's Cup keels...) and in the sheer level of athletic competition. Sports is big business, and fans demand the best.

The number one participatory sport worldwide is football (known as soccer - to Americans). The number two sport in the world ... is basketball! This writer was surprised to learn that basketball is so popular all around the world. Cricket, of course, has its devoted adherents. And baseball is tops in several countries. Then there are the badminton and table tennis countries - but basketball ranks right in there, pretty consistently. Basketball is not difficult to play, inexpensive, and doesn't need a lot of space. To get started all you need is: a ball, a basket, and a pretty good aim.

Soccer games can have lots of action, but low scoring. American football is pretty complicated for the uninitiated (have you ever tried explaining the rules in an English class?!) Basketball though is a team sport with action and lots of personality. An excellent pass followed by a great shot or even a dunk - can get the fans roaring in no time. With these advantages in mind the NBA (National Basketball Association) started actively promoting basketball as an international sport around 1991-92. Coincidently - the Olympic Committee decided to allow professionals to compete (openly) for the first time, in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. In the U.S., home fans got to see the "Dream Team" in action. An unstoppable basketball team composed of the best NBA players from all across the USA. But Americans weren't the only ones who noticed - in fact the NBA had 11 players from overseas(!) who played for their home countries, each as returning sports stars. -Easy promotion for the NBA as a whole, spread out worldwide.... Lithuania, Nigeria, Spain, Croatia, Germany, Australia, Canada, and Serbia.

Basketball got its humble start in the 1890's in Massachuettes using a plain peach basket and a small ball. In 1946 the NBA was formed in the U.S. It is the youngest of America's major sporting leagues. But basketball gained players and fans outside of North America too. In fact the "governing body" for international rules is FIBA, located in Europe. And when U.S. teams play there (often competing against European teams) they must adopt to slightly different rules of play (court size, fouling, etc.).

In the fall of 1990 the NBA played its first regular season, exhibition game outside of North America. Tokyo was the venue! Two tall (also too tall, by the way) teams ventured over here and gave the Japanese a fine exhibition game. In 1992 the NBA returned (but to Yokohama), and again to Yokohama in November 1994 - where the Portland Trailblazers and L.A. Clippers played a regular season game outside of North America! (The NBA is the first & only North American league to have done this.) And as a reporter, I just had to query about Japanese doorways and hotel bed lengths. Yes, even the major Japanese hotels have to put two beds together, etc. for when they have this many 7 footers in the country at one time....

In 1991, '93 & '94 NBA teams ventured off to exhibition games in Europe. And the pace is picking up. Remember that without much effort - basketball is already popular in many countries. And the NBA is rapidly developing its media presence (particularly on TV) around the globe. Over the past couple of years there has been a consistent increase in the amount of basketball coverage on Japanese TV. NHK-BS now shows an average of 2 games per week, during the season (the basketball season runs from: November through April, playoffs in May, with the Finals in June). Beginning in December, TV Asahi started airing about 1 NBA game per month, 3 on Sunday afternoons, and 3 late on Saturday nights. (The next TV Asahi game is on April 15th, San Antonio vs. Phoenix.) In addition, TV Tokyo (with its 19 affiliates across Japan) is showing "NBA Weekly" on Sundays. Starting April 2nd this will come on at noon.

All told, NBA games are now showing in over 130 countries, in 35 languages. Soccer may be "a kick in the pants" right now - but in the big business of sports - basketball is jumping up - looking for a slam dunk!

This article was originally from (no longer published): Tokyo Central Quarterly, Spring 1995 (Vol. 4, No. 2)

Copyright 1995 - Edited by Paul Abramson. Do not re-publish or sell without permission. But share this article with friends/associates as much as you'd like.

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