On November 2, 1990, the NBA made history in two different games—one of them across the Pacific Ocean.
It was on this day that the Phoenix Suns played the Utah Jazz in the first regular-season game in major professional sports to ever played outside North America, as they faced each other at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Japan.
In Denver, the Nuggets hosted the Golden State Warriors in what also turned out to be a record-setting day in Colorado.
In Japan, over 10,000 fans had sold out the building in order to witness history. Previously, the city had hosted an NFL preseason game between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, but that game disappointed because star quarterback John Elway didn't play but a quarter of the game.
Japan spent $2 million to host two games between the Suns and Jazz on back-to-back nights. The game had a feel for what fans typically see at contests in the United States.
The NBA had an official floor, game clocks, baskets, and entertainment in the way of the Famous Chicken—all which were shipped overseas for this game. The two teams also had stars in Karl Malone, John Stockton, Tom Chambers, and Kevin Johnson, which helped to please the Tokyo crowd. NBA Commissioner David Stern realized that Japan is serious about their sports, and that they have a history of drawing well for all sporting events. This landmark event was no different.
The Suns won the game by the score of 119-96. Chambers led all scorers with 38 points, and he also added 10 rebounds. Kevin Johnson added 29 points and had 10 assists while Dan Majerle came off the bench to score 16 points for Phoenix.
Both Malone and Stockton had a double-doubles for the Jazz. Malone had 33 points and 10 rebounds, while Stockton had 16 points and 10 assists. The key difference in the opening game was the Phoenix bench outscoring Utah 37-13.
The teams played each other the following night, and Utah evened up the series with a 102-101 win. The crowd in Tokyo saw two competitive teams play two games that forever impacted the league and the sporting world.
Meanwhile, at McNichols Arena in Denver, an offensive showing like nothing ever seen in the NBA before was beginning to take shape. The Golden State had the trio of Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, and Mitch Richmond. Denver was led by Orlando Woolridge, who had been traded by the Los Angeles Lakers, and Todd Lichti. They also got a great game off the bench from Walter Davis, too.
Paul Westhead was in his first year as head coach of the Nuggets, incorporating the run-and-gun offense in Denver. The Warriors were coached by Don Nelson, who was in his third year as head coach and had also brought his version of the run-and-gun offense to Golden State.
At halftime, the Warriors led the Nuggets 87-83, which set the record for most combined points in a half (breaking the mark previously held by Syracuse and San Francisco, with 166 combined points in 1963). The other record in jeopardy was the most combined points in a non-overtime game, set by the Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs with 318 in 1984.
Both teams scored 75 points in the second half, as Golden State beat Denver by the score of 162-158 to set the record for the most combined points by two teams in a non-overtime game. Mullin led all scorers with 38 points. Hardaway had 32 points and 18 assists while Richmond added 29 points for the Warriors. Rod Higgins had 17 points off the bench for Golden State.
The Nuggets got 37 points from Woolridge which included 15-for-20 at the free throw line. Walter Davis had a double-double off the bench with 33 points and ten rebounds. Lichti had 19 points and Michael Adams added 18 points and eight assists.
The Suns went 55-27 on the season. They faced the Jazz in the first round of the 1991 Playoffs, where they lost in four games. The Jazz finished 54-28, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round in five games after getting by Phoenix in the first round.
The Warriors averaged 116.6 points a game and gave 115 on defense during the 1990-91 season. They finished the season with a 44-38 record, and they clinched a playoff spot in which they lost in the second round to Lakers in five games.
Denver averaged 119.9 points a game, and gave up a 130.8 on defense. They finished the 1990-91 season with a 20-62 record. Westhead only won 44 games in two seasons, and was fired as head coach.
The game in Tokyo was very important, as professional leagues would later use the same tactics in order to promote their sports on a worldwide stage. Pro leagues had played preseason games to audiences outside of North America, but many of the starters in those games didn't play very long.
The game in Tokyo proved that professional leagues could draw audiences for the purpose of reaching sports fans out of North America. Since that time, the NFL, MLB, and NHL have also made efforts by playing regular season games outside of the continent with huge financial success.
Teams in the NBA aren't scoring as many points in a game these days, compared to the 1990-91 season. Many changes have been made on the court, and the NBA eventually allowed teams to use the zone defense when they were previously permitted to only use man-to-man. Emphasis on defense has been seen as the biggest reason the NBA has seen a dropoff in scoring.
This opening day brought excitement to one nation, and a fun, offensive showing that would later be shown constantly on ESPN Classic. The NBA has struggled with negative publicity in recent years, as well as a lockout in 1998 that caused the season to almost be completely lost. However,
the league made a landmark statement on this day, and helped other major pro sports leagues to see the potential of regular-season games outside North America. Although pro sports leagues played offseason and preseason games outside of North America for many years, this event also helped to further integrate athletes from around the world in pro sports leagues on this continent after seeing the potential it had. The offensive showing in Denver was the icing on the cake for the opening games in the 1990-91 season.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this FSD History Flashback!