Publish date:


The NBA showed how to export a product to Japan, where the Jazz and Suns split regular-season wins

Mark Eaton scoured Tokyo video stores in search of his favorite celluloid hero, a damsel-saving, blind Japanese monk named Zatoichi. Eaton's Utah Jazz teammate Karl Malone gave a 10,000-yen note (about $80) to a street person. Kevin Johnson worked the Tokyo crowds like Arsenio Hall; his Phoenix Sun teammate Kurt Rambis—he of the black horn-rimmed glasses-found that his cult following has spread to Japan. Jazz rookies Walter Palmer and Andy Toolson bought a couple of yukata (Japanese bathrobes), while two young Sun players, second-year forward Kenny Battle and rookie Cedric Ceballos, had their picture taken with Julius Erving, who was in town to give two clinics.

But when all was said and done, the best thing that happened as Phoenix and Utah opened the 1990-91 NBA season in Tokyo—6,750 miles west of the league's New York City address-was that the teams played to a good old-fashioned 1-1 split. The NBA executives would never admit it publicly, of course, but they were absolutely overjoyed with the split. The regular-season schedule is tough enough and long enough without having one team start at 0-2 three quarters of the way across the Pacific Ocean.

"It would have been a long, long ride home with two losses," said Malone. Then again, Karl, it was going to be a long, long ride home anyway.

The Suns won last Saturday's opener of what was called the—let's see—NBA Official Opening Games in Japan 119-96, but the Jazz squeezed out a 102-101 win the next afternoon. That taken care of, coach Jerry Sloan's samurai took a 6:30 p.m. flight from Tokyo, crossed the International Date Line, arrived back in Salt Lake City at about 3:30 p.m. Sunday and promptly went to practice. You deal with jet lag your way, and Sloan will deal with it his way.

The quality of the games, which were the first regular-season games in any major U.S. professional team sport ever held outside North America, was uneven. Utah looked extremely ragged in Saturday's opener, and both teams played the first half of Sunday's game as if they were getting back at the Japanese for buying Pebble Beach. Still, despite the relative lack of sophistication of the capacity crowds (10,111 for each game) at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, the games had an undeniable NBA stamp, what with an official NBA floor (shipped from Dollar Bay, Mich.), official NBA clocks (shipped from Des Moines), official NBA baskets (shipped from Angier, N.C.), official NBA entertainment (The Famous Chicken, the Memphis State Pom-Pon Girls) and official NBA superstar performances (Malone scored 62 points in the two games and Johnson scored 57).

Basically, the Tokyo series was a giant marketing test for the NBA. "From a coaching standpoint, there are absolutely no benefits to this trip," said Utah president Frank Layden, formerly the Jazz coach. "In fact, I'd call it a downright disaster. Winning is hard enough under the best of circumstances, without putting a coach through this." So why didn't the league, which participates in the annual preseason McDonald's Open, a series that has moved from Milwaukee to Madrid to Rome to Barcelona, settle for two exhibition games in Japan?

Simple. The host nation wanted official NBA games, that's why. The Japanese are serious sports fans, but more than that, they are serious "attenders of events," as NBA commissioner David Stern puts it. Particularly events with honmono—authenticity. Besides, the Japanese tolerance for American exhibitions had plummeted since August, when, during a Denver-Seattle NFL preseason game in the Tokyo Dome, the Broncos used quarterback John Elway for barely one quarter.

"The only reason we bought tickets [at about $170 each] to the basketball game is because it's going to be the real thing," said Yasushi Noda, an English-speaking student who, with his friend Koichi Zaiki, waited in line for two hours at a Tokyo department store last Thursday afternoon to get autographs from Eaton and Jazz teammates John Stockton and Darrell Griffith. "There is no way the teams would play hard if it were preseason. They would say: Ah, who cares? It is only an exhibition in front of the Japanese."

Perhaps more important, executives at C. Itoh and Co., Ltd., the NBA's business partner in Japan, demanded regular-season games. And the NBA most assuredly aims to please C. Itoh, a billion-dollar multinational conglomerate. The complexity of doing business in Japan makes it all but necessary for a foreign entity to have a Japanese partner, and the NBA and C. Itoh have been partners since Jan. 1, 1988. By mutual consent, the relationship has proceeded slowly. Stern, in fact, presented one C. Itoh executive with a crystal turtle some 18 months ago to symbolize the desired pace. Last week's series was, in the words of Masanori Otsubo, a C. Itoh executive, "a kickoff event" to promote the NBA in Japan. In other words, citizens of Japan, look for a blitz of those two big American T's—TV and T-shirts.

The Japanese paid $2 million to land the two games, $500,000 of which went to the teams ($250,000 is the average gate revenue from one NBA home game). The rest went toward travel, hotel and other expenses. The league would not break down the precise financial arrangement between the NBA and C. Itoh, though one executive confirmed that the games were nearly a "break-even" proposition for the league. In other words, C. Itoh wrote most of the checks. Also, executives from both teams wined and dined members of the Japanese banking community while in Tokyo, for it is Japanese money that is backing construction of new arenas in Phoenix and Salt Lake City.

Now, does all this make the players mere jet-lagged pawns in a high-stakes money game? To a certain extent, yes. But the NBA's basic bargaining agreement guarantees that players receive 53% of all revenues. The more sweatshirts sold in Kyoto, the more moo-la makes its way to, say, Milwaukee.

"Just think of this whole global picture as a big pie," said Charles Grantham, executive director of the NBA Players Association. "The bigger that pie gets, the bigger the piece for the players." But how about asking athletes to play regular-season games—and meaningful ones, considering that Phoenix and Utah are two of the Western Conference powers—in a foreign land? Said Grantham: "How long could you continue to sell some meaningless games to a market that was gathering steam? They had to be regular-season games." Stern couldn't have summarized the NBA's position more eloquently.

The commissioner, who made a stop in Los Angeles on his way home to attend Sunday night's Clipper-Golden State game—the man does earn his $5.5 million a year salary—said he envisioned global openers being played "on a periodic rather than regular basis." But don't count on it being merely periodic; Stern sees the world as one big NBA supermarket, and as the song says, there's such a lot of world to see. During a brief stay in China before going to Tokyo, Stern and his wife, Diane, even met an NBA fan in the city of Xian. "Ah, the NBA," a woman said to the Sterns. "I once saw the Los Angeles team play the team of the red oxen." She meant the Chicago Bulls.

Burgeoning Pacific markets were hardly on the minds of the Jazz when the team left for Tokyo from New York City's JFK Airport on the afternoon of Oct. 30. An arduous and disappointing 1-7 preseason had taken the Jazz to Chicago, Nashville, Las Vegas, Toronto and, finally, Providence, where the team had been blown out by the Celtics 120-102 on Oct. 29, the day before the 15-hour flight to Tokyo. Sloan's theory on fighting fatigue and jet lag had his players working out as soon as they arrived in Tokyo. He said at a press conference last week that athletes "need to get out and work a little" after a tiring trip, at which point his two superstars, Malone and Stockton, who were sitting nearby, rolled their eyes.

The Suns, meanwhile, had begun adjusting their body clocks to Tokyo time (which is 16 hours ahead of Phoenix's Mountain Standard Time) right after their final exhibition game, in Chicago on Oct. 27. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons kept the Suns awake during the flight home-from Chicago—"It's easier doing that than keeping them awake on the court," he said later—and held 3 a.m. practices in Phoenix on Oct. 29 and 30. The team left for Tokyo a few hours after the second one.

Amid practice sessions, press conferences and team dinners, the players squeezed in what sightseeing and socializing they could in Tokyo. On one two-hour sweep through the Shinjuku section of the city last Thursday afternoon, Malone bought three ties, for 35,000 yen (about $300), met several Japanese students wearing MAILMAN MALONE sweatshirts, tried—and failed—to find a pair of size-15 sneakers, gulped down an order of fries at a McDonald's (official Japanese translation: McFry potatoes) and made himself the benefactor of that street person, a man with a scrawny cat on his shoulder.

Stockton, meanwhile, was determined to see Tokyo's Meiji shrine, built in memory of Emperor Mutsuhito (1867-1912), and enlisted a driver and a guide to take him there. The confused driver took one look at Stockton's sneakers and shorts (not his basketball duds) and promptly drove him to the arena. By the time the car fought its way back through the brutal Tokyo traffic, the gates of the shrine were closed for the day. "Well," said Stockton, "I tried."

Fitzsimmons spent much of his limited free time with his wife, JoAnn, who had come to Tokyo at Johnson's expense; a few weeks earlier, KJ had bid $7,000 at a charity auction for two trips to Tokyo for the NBA series, and he gave the tickets to JoAnn Fitzsimmons and Patricia Burks, the woman who helped Johnson start the St. Hope Academy, a foundation for kids from the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento where Johnson grew up. Cotton also used his considerable talent for verbal persuasion to woo Japanese fans to Phoenix's side. "Look, you gotta root for us," the Suns' coach told them. "I see eye to eye with you. Jerry Sloan's much too tall."

And so was Phoenix's 6'10" Tom Chambers, who reduced one Japanese television reporter to giddiness when she stared up at him during an interview.

"Why are you so big?" she asked between giggles, getting the interview off to a slow start.

"My mom took good care of me when I was young," answered Chambers.

"Do you jump high?" was her next question.

"I used to," said Chambers, "but not anymore." Film at 11:00.

Johnson, along with teammates Mark West and Rambis, made an appearance the next day to sign autographs at the same department store as the three Jazz players, but not without trepidation. Stereotypical caricatures of blacks, in the form of dolls and the like, are not uncommon in Japan, and Johnson and West had told Barry Ringel, the Suns' director of media relations, to make sure that the department store did not carry (or at least did not display) any of the offensive items. It did not, and the appearances by both the Jazz and Sun players were overwhelming successes. Johnson fired up the department store crowd by pumping his hand in a circular motion, a la Arsenio Hall. When KJ did the same thing before Saturday's opener, he was surprised when the audience responded with barks, just like an Arsenio audience.

Rambis was taken aback too, when he gazed into the crowd during the pregame warmup drills and saw five young Japanese fans wearing black-framed glasses, the trademark of Rambis's growing legion of fans. "I have no idea how they knew about it," he said. A precise explanation of the phenomenon was not possible, even with the help of a Japanese interpreter. "Yes, yes, Rambis, Rambis!" is about all the fans could say. David Stern, this is globalization.

Chambers's 38 points and 10 rebounds, along with Johnson's 29 points and 10 assists, easily overcame Utah in Game 1. Game 2 was close the entire way, with Malone's two free throws with 41.6 seconds left making the difference. Phoenix had a chance to win, but Chambers's 13-foot jumper clanged off the rim as the buzzer sounded. As it did, the Jazz players raised their arms in jubilation, almost as if they had won a double-overtime playoff game. Both teams paused for a moment on the court and waved, and some of the players tossed their sweatbands to the crowd.

Fear not, Tokyo basketball fans, if you did not get a sweatband. They will, no doubt, soon be available at your local department store.



Malone, a towering tourist in Tokyo, focused on a colorful local subject.



Phoenix, like Utah, was made to feel at home in unlikely environs.



After a 6,750-mile flight, Malone kept on soaring.



Stockton and Griffith had to share the admiration of the Japanese fans with a chicken.



An attendant looked up in awe as Eaton descended—sort of—from the bus.