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As Japan nears a pandemic turning point, NBA fans can’t help but clap

A crowd of 20,497 watched the Wizards and Warriors in a preseason game in Tokyo. (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

SAITAMA, Japan — You’ve never heard a crowd clap like the crowds clap here.

In Japan, fans 20,000 strong never once lose rhythm when it comes time to clap to a beat. They might have sounded militaristic throughout the weekend at Saitama Super Arena if it weren’t so clear how happy everyone was to be watching live basketball.

They came in droves sporting jerseys — the usuals (LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook), the classics (Patrick Ewing, Kobe Bryant) and the delightfully unexpected (Paul George, Grant Hill) in addition to scores of Rui Hachimuras and Stephen Currys. They lined up outside the arena’s loading docks in the afternoon to wave at charter buses loaded with players, then stayed long after the sun went down to wave goodbye.

Rui Hachimura has a complicated relationship with Japan, but he’s happy to be back

But mostly they clapped. People politely applauded while sitting on the edge of their seats, a logical — and genuine — demonstration in a country where rule-following and respect toward visitors are tenets of the culture. There was silence during free throws and when the announcer was speaking, but after? Encouraging clapping. Or perhaps it was congratulatory clapping. It sounded reassuring.

Fans oohed and aahed (and clapped) for players shooting warm-up jumpers before Friday’s game. This is a country that originated game shows in which people dressed as sumo wrestlers shoot fake guns at a target while riding a mechanical narwhal, yet the crowds clapped for a member of the Wizards’ dance crew who did a backflip. A backflip!

It makes one lament last summer’s Olympics, which fans were not permitted to attend. Imagine the clapping.

All the giddiness made perfect sense after years of gloom.

The Wizards’ and Warriors’ visit to Japan for a pair of preseason games is the NBA’s first international exhibition since the start of the pandemic — a pair of games between the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, next week will follow.

That makes this weekend the first time that Japanese fans got to see Hachimura live since the Wizards drafted him in the first round in 2019, which was also the most recent year the NBA held a game in Japan. The crowd showed its appreciation by showering Hachimura with the loudest applause of the night when he was introduced before Friday’s game.

“There’s a lot of NBA fans now. Tonight, I feel like there were more Steph [Curry] fans — I was a little bit upset,” Hachimura said after the game, laughing. “It is what it is. But, yeah, it’s good. I was so happy to be able to play in front of these fans.”

Hachimura’s entrance into the league coincided with events that seem apt to accelerate the growth of the sport in Japan.

NBA programming has aired in the country since the 1988-89 season, and Japan hosted 12 regular season games between 1990 and 2003. A 1990 contest between Phoenix and Utah was the first regular season game played outside North America by a U.S. sports league, according to the NBA.

But between Tokyo hosting the postponed 2020 Olympics — where the Japan women’s basketball team claimed the silver medal — this weekend’s games and next year’s FIBA World Cup in Tokyo, basketball is having a moment.

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“These games were meant to be played last year, and because of the Olympics, covid, we pushed it,” said Ramez Sheikh, NBA Asia’s managing director. “… But I think fortunately now we’ve had this momentum with the Olympics and the success of the female team, having Rui drafted and having the World Cup next August in Tokyo together with the Philippines and Indonesia, it’s sort of great. It’s great for the game; it’s great for momentum.”

All that momentum seems concentrated inside Saitama Super Arena for the time being.

The crowd’s clapping was more than an expression of thrill, it was also conveniently the most hygienic way to display support while the pandemic continues on. In Tokyo, it is still rare to see anyone walking around without a mask on, even outside, and fans in the arena were required to cover up.

This weekend’s exhibition is taking place as Japan prepares to allow individual visitors, regardless of vaccination status, to enter the country again Oct. 11 after a gradual reopening began in May.

The timing of the games contributed to the feeling, from one outsider’s perspective, that the country is at a turning point. Those deprived of basketball action and feting Hachimura during the Olympics made the stands at Saitama Super Arena shake over the weekend.

Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, who experienced a locked-down Tokyo as a member of Team USA’s coaching staff during the Summer Games, felt the difference when the crowd applauded Hachimura on Friday.

“You see how popular he is; when he spoke to the crowd, they went crazy. It was a great moment,” Kerr said. “The game has been a global one for a long time, but the more international stars we can get, the more popular the game becomes in that particular player’s country. Hopefully they’ll have more and more players coming from Japan to the NBA, because you can see it’s a basketball-crazed country here. People love it. It’s fun to be a part of.”