TOKYO, NOV. 3 -- Every dunkingu shooto (dunk) evoked a roar. Every flashy passu (pass) elicited wild cheers.
No matter which side was scoring, the Japanese crowd greeted big plays with noisy acclaim -- and as a result, according to the Phoenix Suns' Tom Chambers, today's contest at times "felt like an exhibition game."
But this was no exhibition. This was the official season opener for the Suns and the Utah Jazz of the National Basketball Association, the first regular season game ever staged outside of North America by a major U.S. professional sports league.
Pro basketball, baseball and football teams have been traveling overseas for years, but never before have their games counted in the record books. The NBA, seeking to generate fan interest abroad, figured it could stir more excitement by staging a game in which stars from both teams would play longer and harder than in an exhibition.
The strategy appeared to work; a capacity crowd of 10,111 paid between $27 and $170 to attend the game, nationally televised from the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. The fans seemed well pleased, even though the game turned a bit lopsided in the second half. The Suns won, 119-96; the teams meet again Sunday before returning to the United States.
"Everything is fantastic, exciting," said an 18-year-old student who said the game was "completely different" from Japanese industrial-league matches he has attended.
In a news conference before the game, NBA Commissioner David Stern said he sees potentially vast opportunities for profit if the league succeeds in increasing its popularity in Japan and other countries. The NBA, already in excellent financial health, is looking to expand its worldwide satellite and cable television revenues and sell more licensed merchandise.
"Right now, international revenues are a tiny percentage of the total -- maybe five million to ten million out of seven-hundred million," Stern said. "But I think the prospects for the expansion of the NBA internationally are at least as good as I thought the prospects were for cable in 1980." The league's annual revenue from cable has mushroomed since 1980 from $500,000 to $68 million.
Up to now, the NBA has focused its international marketing on Europe, where basketball is well-established and the league sends a team every year to play in a tournament. But Stern said the league chose Japan for its first regular season game precisely because basketball needs more of a boost here.
Nearly all Japanese play basketball in junior high and high school, so unlike American football, the game is easy for them to understand. Many of the fans here today seemed to be fairly knowledgeable. Koichi Yoshimura, a student who plays for the Iwate University team, was rooting for the Suns "because they beat the Lakers" in last year's playoffs.
But basketball has never caught on here nearly as much as baseball or golf. In an indication of the Japanese preference for baseball, the network that aired today's NBA game delayed the broadcast until after the conclusion of a game between U.S. and Japanese baseball all-stars.
Still, Stern said he is convinced that basketball has a brighter future here as a spectator sport, "because it's very widely played." He said he is "pretty sure" the league will return to Japan for regular season games in the future, although, "I don't know if we'll do it every year."
One problem with staging games here is the jet lag suffered by players. Before leaving for Tokyo on Tuesday, Phoenix Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons held two 3 a.m. practices to get his team acclimated to Tokyo time.
Because the game was official, players said they had little chance this week to sightsee or sample Japanese food. "We're over here to play -- that's basically what I've been concerned with," said Jeff Malone, the former Washington Bullet who now plays for the Jazz.
Malone marveled at the politeness of the Japanese, although he said they "tend to come up to you and look at you like you're some kind of tall building."
Special correspondent Yasuharu Ishizawa contributed to this report.