Basketball / NBA

Rockets, Raptors set for two games in Japan

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Well, it’s only preseason contests this time, but Japan will host NBA games for the first time in 16 years when the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors face each other, the league announced at a Tokyo news conference on Tuesday.

The teams will compete on Oct. 8 and 10 at Saitama Super Arena, which will be the venue for the sport at the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The Seattle SuperSonics, the predecessor of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Los Angeles Clippers played in a two-game regular-season opening series and 2003 and the Rockets-Raptors preseason competitions will be the first NBA action that the Japanese audience will get to see in person since. The games will be cohosted by the league and Rakuten, Inc.

Toronto is currently the second-best Eastern Conference team with a 46-18 record while Houston (38-25) is in fifth place in the Western Conference.

Japan became the first country to host the NBA — or any major U.S.-based professional team for the matter — in regular-season games outside North America, when the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns played a two-game series in 1990. There have been 10 NBA games in six two-game series played on Japanese soil since then. All were regular-season season openers.

Other Asian nations such as China and Taiwan have staged preseason games in the past several years. India will host two preseason games for the first time when the Sacramento Kings take on the Indiana Pacers in Mumbai in the 2019-20 season as well.

Houston is no stranger to Japan. In 1992, the Western Conference team took on Seattle at Yokohama Arena.

“We have played 12 games here, including our first nearly 30 years ago,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said via a live video broadcast from the United States.

“In fact, basketball in Japan traces back to the early 1990s. With our history and with our sheer vision, we believe Japanese basketball has a bright future. We hope to see all of you at the games this coming October.”

Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, whose e-commerce and Internet company signed to a media partnership deal with the NBA making it the exclusive streaming distributor in the country in 2017, said that bringing NBA games back to Japan would boost the popularity of the game here. He added that it could also impact Japanese sports leagues from an entertainment standpoint.

Rakuten has a global partnership with perennial Spanish soccer power Barcelona, but Mikitani said that the excitement at NBA games is “different from that in soccer.”

“The games are so showy with their passing basketball, and besides that, there’s the cheerleaders and all that as well,” he said. “So in terms of it as a sporting entertainment, I think maybe the NBA is the best in the world. They will provide you highly complete entertainment.”

Rakuten owns NPB’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and J. League’s Vissel Kobe, but the 53-year-old added: “There’s things Japanese soccer and baseball can learn from (the NBA).”

Tochigi Brex star guard Yuta Tabuse, who became the first Japanese to play in the NBA for the Phoenix Suns in 2004, is thrilled about the opportunity to observe NBA games in Japan again.

Asked which players he would look forward to seeing, Tabuse mentioned reigning Rockets star James Harden, the reigning NBA MVP, first.

“Individually, because I’m a point guard, I like Chris Paul (of the Rockets). For the Raptors, (I like) Kyle Lowry,” Tabuse said. “Houston head coach (Mike) D’Antoni was my head coach when I played in Phoenix, so it would be great that I will see him (in October).”

Asked why the NBA decided to bring preseason games instead of regular-season contests to Japan, NBA Asia managing director Scott Levy said: “The partnership with Rakuten has allowed us to put more games on television to a bigger audience. We have more social media followers than we’ve ever had.”

“So our focus is bringing the games back to experience (them). I think when you are in the arena, there’s a little distinction between your experience (and) what’s going on on the court. And we are going to start with preseason, and we will continue to explore other opportunities with Rakuten over the next few years.”

Rakuten became the official sponsor for the jersey patch of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors in 2017. Because of its ties to the West Coast-based team, it had been speculated that the league would assign the team to play in the Japanese series.

Levy said that the league is “regularly talking to all the teams” trying to understand where they would like to go and when they can travel, adding that “a lot of factors go into” making decisions.

“Our goal here was to bring a great NBA experience and having Houston and Toronto, two of the top teams in the league participating, we think we have a great matchup,” he said.