32 years ago, the Japan Games launched the internationalization of the NBA

On November 2, 1990, the “Japan Games” were the first games in regular season history played…away. Perhaps the starting point of the NBA’s internationalization strategy, championed by former commissioner David Stern.

Major American sports leagues are historically reserved for their country. Who in France, for example, follows the MLB or the NHL? Not many people. We opened up a little bit to the NFL, thanks to the intercontinental popularity of the Superbowl and its halftime show, but it’s the NBA that has exported its best to the world. This is the result, among other factors, of the NBA’s internationalization policy. This policy was launched at the end of the 1970s, but the Japan Games in 1990 was perhaps the turning point: the turning point that made it concrete.

In 1978, an NBA team played for the first time outside of North America. The Washington Bullets travel to Israel on September 7th to lose (!) a game against Maccabi Tel-Aviv, just to show everyone that basketball is easier when you’re American. In 1984, two Great League franchises met for the first time abroad: the Phoenix Suns quietly won against the New Jersey Nets in Milan, at the former San Siro sports hall. But that’s just pre-season, it doesn’t really matter and doesn’t really show what the competition is like at the highest level. So in 1990, David Stern, commissioner since 1984, decided to go ahead: the NBA would organize a regular season game in Japan. This is the first official meeting abroad in the history of the NBA, and more, of all the major American leagues combined. The Suns and the Jazz, opponents in the first round of the Playoffs a few months ago, were chosen to go to the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Tokyo. All this in a very unique environment. The Cathedral was silent during the free throws, applause was given for each basket, the difference in culture was palpable.

The Suns won quietly on November 2, 119-96, with 38 points and 10 rebounds from Tom Chambers. The Jazz responded the next day in a tougher match: 102-101, with 29 points and 14 rebounds from Karl Malone, who had already dropped a big triple-double the day before despite the loss. But match-specific numbers are anecdotal.

Between 1990 and 2003, the big league found Japan four times, for the pre-season. He takes it back to 2016, first, then a month ago. The Washington Wizards are invited and for good reason, Rui Hachimura, a true star of Japanese basketball, is in their workforce.

“It’s amazing for me, for this country, Japan, and for basketball. It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was little, and it makes me happy […] I see that basketball is growing in Japan. The NBA and the country are getting closer. – Rui Hachimura, via Japan Times

The NBA is therefore becoming more and more popular in Japan. The same goes for basketball in general, because yes, the game exists somewhere other than Uncle Sam’s country. Not very popular during the first Japan Games, basketball grew in the land of the rising sun. It is now one of the ten most popular sports in Japan. An improvement explained by the arrival of the NBA in the country, but also the emergence of several stars of Japanese basketball, in particular Yuta Tabuse and Takuya Kawamura in the 2000s, and therefore Rui Hachimura or Yuta Watanabe more recently. Since 2015, the B-League has been the main basketball league in Japan. It aims to establish itself as a sporting stronghold in the country, just as the J-League did at the turn of the century: football is now one of the most popular sports in the country. To that end, the B-League is trying to play to Japanese culture, and it seems to be working.

If this popularity is also strengthened by the collaboration between the NBA and the Rakuten brand, the internationalization of the big League will clearly not stop in Japan. In fact, this is a deep will of its leaders, starting with former commissioner David Stern, who was followed in his ambitions by the current boss of the League, Adam Silver. From Japan, the NBA has visited many other countries. Mexico, mostly, thanks to its geographical proximity and cultural similarities to parts of the United States. Britain, obviously: the European country most visited by our American friends in shorts, in London where the first regular season matches on the Old Continent took place, in 2013. China, this is a market that cannot be missed. And David Stern understood that. With the help of Yao Ming’s arrival, the NBA found a prominent place on the Chinese sports map. And according to Yahoo Sports, the country accounts for more than 10% of the League’s revenue. China has only had pre-season games, but with the country’s television boycott ending in a few months, the regular season may stop there. france, Finally, the last new kid. Paris hosted the Bucks and Hornets in January 2020, again within a few weeks: this time, the Bulls and the Pistons will walk the floor of the Accor Arena. In total, more than 120 international matches, from Tokyo to Abu-Dhabi via Beijing, pre-season or regular, took place outside North America. And Adam Silver wants to continue this internationalization policy, especially in Europe.

“With FIBA, we have already worked with “Basket without borders” and the Basketball African League, which we will further develop. With the Euroleague, we have already cooperated and we want to continue. The goal is not to win in Europe but to improve basketball on the continent […] The growth opportunities, especially outside the US, are enormous. – Adam Silver via Il Correre della Serra and basketnews.com

Today, leagues around the world follow the NBA model: the NFL came to Great Britain, Ligue 1 football is exported or plays its matches sometimes adapted to the Chinese market, we still want to play some Champions League matches outside Europe but no. t mess around anyway, the fans said stop. However, this desire for internationalization, globalization, has paid off for the NBA. Under the impetus of David Stern, who also capitalized on the popularity of Michael Jordan and the 1992 Dream Team, it became one of the most watched and profitable leagues in the world. And it all started with training on November 2, 1990, in Tokyo.

Sometimes events mark history before our eyes. Sometimes you have to go back to them years later to understand their scope and importance. This is the case of the Japan Games of 90, which launched the NBA’s transformation process. Without that, it probably wouldn’t be what it is today #phrasebâteaupourbienconclure.

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