TRISTIN CLINT WRITES – The NBA Japan Games 2022 concluded this past weekend with the Golden State Warriors winning both exhibition games over the Washington Wizards. This two-game set, which began September 30th, marked not only the sixteenth NBA game that Japan has hosted, but the first to be played in Japan since 2019, when over 20,000 people (about the seating capacity of Madison Square Garden) flocked to the Saitama Super Arena to watch the then defending NBA champion team, the Toronto Raptors, play the Houston Rockets.

The NBA Japan Games 2022 were special for a multitude of reasons: first, because the Golden State Warriors attract fans on an international scale; second, because this was their first game since winning the NBA Finals back in June; and third, the opposing team, the Washington Wizards, made NBA history back in 2019 by selecting Rui Hachimura as the 9th overall pick in the draft, making him the first Japanese-born player to be drafted in the first round.

Hachimura, in an interview after the exhibition series, enthused: “I’m so glad to make this trip as a team… I was able to share my culture and how beautiful this country is to my teammates, and I think they loved it.”

And so, apparently, did he. Hachimura put on a show for the home crowd in both games. In 25 minutes of action in Game 1, he led his team, scoring 13 points and collecting 9 rebounds, thus spending the most time on the floor of any of the Wizards. Fans at the Super Arena were supremely excited. Much of the same occurred the next day, for Game 2 of the series, as Hachimura recorded a double-double, with 11 points and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes of action (more than anyone on either team). Fans were ecstatic to witness the superstardom of reigning Finals MVP Stephen Curry (whose replica jersey was worn by numerous fans at the games) and the defending champion Warriors, as well as their hometown feel-good story involving Rui Hachimura.

Japan has a rich history of talented athletes across sports in general, but the successes are usually attributed to baseball, not basketball. Sports fans revere the generational talent of reigning American League MVP Shohei Ohtani, and have been introduced to Japan’s newest star of the Chicago Cubs, Seiya Suzuki. So, it’s easy to overlook promising basketball players like Hachimura as well as Yuta Watanabe, who just signed a deal with the Brooklyn Nets.

Hachimura and Watanabe are currently the only two Japanese players on NBA rosters, but exhibition events such as the NBA Japan Games 2022 may well lead to an increase in the international reach of the league. In this regard, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr deemed this series “an extremely important trip and an impactful trip.”

If the NBA truly values international reach, specifically in markets such as Japan, it should aim to establish, again, Japan as a site for regular season games.  While 1990 marked Japan’s first time as host of an NBA regular season game played outside the United States, you’d have to fast forward almost twenty years, to 2003, to find the most recent game, when the LA Clippers played the Seattle Supersonics-and the Supersonics no longer exist!

Despite this long absence of regular season play in Japan, there is room for optimism: The first NBA regular season game outside the US since 2020 will be played January 19, 2023, in Paris. Next stop: Japan?

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