Tony Parker speaks to reporters at an NBA Rakuten game viewing event in Harajuku, Tokyo.
Photo by Joel Rush
When former San Antonio Spurs All-Star Tony Parker took the stage at an NBA Rakuten game viewing event last night at the Quest Hall theater in Harajuku, Tokyo, the Japanese NBA fans in attendance went wild, thrilled to come face-to-face with a veritable NBA legend.
Hundreds had assembled both to watch a replay of rising star Rui Hachimura’s Washington Wizards taking on the Philadelphia 76ers, and for a chance to see Parker, who came to Japan as an ambassador for the NBA to promote its growth in Japan, and whose popularity remains strong as ever here following his retirement from the league last June.
“The NBA wants to grow basketball here in Japan, so I’m sure they’ll put everything in place to make that happen,” Parker told reporters. “They have a great ambassador [in Hachimura], and because they have a great player that always helps to have a good ambassador to make kids want to play basketball.”
The evening did not disappoint, as fans were treated with the rare opportunity to spend some time with an NBA great when Parker took the stage at halftime. He answered questions about his storied NBA career, his thoughts about Hachimura and what he sees for the future of basketball in Japan. And to the delight of the crowd he even did a bit of cheerleading, getting the room riled up with alternating chants of “Japan!” – “Spurs!” – and then throwing in a “Lakers!” curve ball in for a humorous “Simon Says”-like effect.
In addition, Hachimura’s 27 points – the second-highest scoring total of his young career – led Washington in a surprising 119-113 upset victory over Philly, an outcome the NBA and its Japanese partner company Rakuten could hardly have scripted better if they’d tried.
NBA events don’t happen often in Japan. In actuality, October’s two preseason games in Tokyo between the Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets were the first NBA games held here in 16 years, as the league’s popularity in Japan waned after the retirement of Michael Jordan, who to this day remains by far the most popular NBA star.
The fact that the outcome of the game had already been decided earlier that morning did not seem to quell the excitement (when the emcee asked the fans for a show of hands as to who already knew the score, about a third had remained spoiler free), and there is clearly a hunger among Japanese NBA fans to get in on some NBA action in person, when for many the cost of making the journey to North America to do so is prohibitively expensive.
With Hachimura helping to spark a revived blooming of basketball’s popularity in Japan, the NBA and Rakuten are trying to create more opportunities for fans to do just that by hosting an increasing number of events in the future.