Pete’s Perspective: Japan’s growing NBA appetite sparks fulfilling trip to train foreign broadcasters

MEMPHIS – What was already a packed summer for me got even more exciting with the invitation from the NBA to travel to Japan to present a seminar recently on NBA announcing to local commentators.

On top of a couple trips to visit family in Wisconsin, a trip to visit overseas family in Poland with a side expedition to Prague, a stop in Winston-Salem to accept the Tennessee Sportscaster of the Year award, a weekend in south Florida calling NWSL and USL soccer matches, a trip to Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts to see John Williams conduct his famous film scores, NBA broadcast meetings in New York and Fox NBA meetings in Los Angeles, I went to Tokyo.

American Airlines and I are very tight.

Actually, I was first invited to present to sportscasters in Mumbai, India. But when that program failed to materialize, the destination changed to Tokyo. Rakuten, the Japanese corollary to amazon.com, has entered into a marketing partnership with the NBA. As a result, that’s bringing a large inventory of NBA games to Japan and necessitating a cadre of NBA-ready commentators.

Japanese broadcasters in meeting

Some Japanese commentators had worked NBA games in previous seasons, but more were needed to handle the increased game load. Japanese sports commentators are typically generalists in that they will call soccer, baseball, volleyball and other sports in addition to basketball.

Creating a presentation for this group posed several challenges. First, of the twelve commentators attending the two-day session, only two spoke English. Thankfully, the NBA has a great deal of experience in foreign relations and provided an expert translator who also happens to be very NBA-savvy (and is currently translating Ray Allen’s new book into Japanese).

Secondly, the commentators came to the seminar representing the whole spectrum of NBA expertise – from seasoned veteran to raw rookie. There were a few NBA vets, but the majority of attendees had basketball experience limited to local leagues.

The first challenge was addressed by carefully choosing words, avoiding idioms and figures of speech so that the translations would be easier and hopefully comprehended fully. On the latter issue, I worked to develop a syllabus that covered everything from the basics – key players on every team – to more advanced topics like the NBA’s continuation rule, instant replay triggers, where to find good statistical information and how to best prepare for a telecast.

So, how did it turn out?

One characteristic of the Japanese is that they are very reserved and are reticent to say much, let alone ask questions. Add that to the language hurdle and I had little feedback with which to work in real time. I noticed nods and furious note-taking, but didn’t get too many questions. So I asked them about their experience and their favorite players to get them talking instead of just listening.

Eventually the questions started to come, even though one of the producers attending chided his commentator for asking too many questions. I didn’t think two questions were too many; apparently his producer did.

Japanese broadcasters in meeting

What I can tell you is that there is a great hunger for the NBA in Japan, and it is growing with the signing of Yuta Watanabe to the Grizzlies as a two-way player. Most of the questions were about his prospects for getting NBA playing time. I know that they wanted to hear that he’ll be playing in Beale Street Blue on a regular basis, but I honestly couldn’t promise anything.

What we do know is Watanabe has been cleared for action and could make his preseason debut with the Grizzlies this weekend at FedExForum after being limited in training camp last week with a sore shoulder. The Grizzlies play the Hawks on Friday and the Pacers on Saturday.

I also was interviewed for the better part of two hours by the Japanese basketball magazine Dabu Dori (“double dribble”) by their editor-in-chief, Sohei Oshiba, nattily attired in an authentic Dillon Brooks jersey and Grizzlies hat. The interview was a wide-ranging affair, including queries about Memphis attractions, the funniest Grizz, if I brought my golf clubs to Tokyo and my favorite Japanese athlete (it’s Ichiro Suzuki, in case you’re wondering). They were recording the interview, so of course they asked me to say “Hammer, nail, coffin. This baby’s over!”

Oh, and they love pro wrestling in Japan, so that was a topic of conversation. I was proud to break the news to them that the Grizzlies will be hosting six such nights in the 2018-19 season.

There was more to the trip than a meeting room for three hours a day over two days. My wife, Johanna, joined me and we explored the Meiji shrine and took a combination of buses and trains to Nakone, a lushly scenic mountain region not too far removed from the jam-packed streets of Tokyo. The loneliest guy outside of the Maytag repairman is a Tokyo lawnmower salesman. Apartment and office buildings in central Tokyo are practically stacked on top of one another, with nary a blade of grass in sight.

The crush of people on the Tokyo subway system is remarkable. If you’ve ever been on Chicago’s Red Line just before or after a Cubs game, you’ve experienced a Tokyo-like subway crush. And it doesn’t matter what time of day – rush hour or off-hour – the trains are packed, so grab one of the handholds dangling from the ceiling and hold on for dear life.

On the subject of Japanese transit, the so-called “bullet trains” are no joke. Stand trackside at a station when one blows by and it makes NASCAR feel like a go-cart race in comparison.

All in all, it was a wonderful educational experience and the hope is that I was able to impart some useful knowledge to my Japanese counterparts. They seemed to enjoy the program and can’t wait to use their own version of “hammer, nail, coffin” when they put the headset on in a few weeks.

For me, the calls on the Grizzlies' 2018-19 season game broadcasts begin Friday night.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Pete Pranica are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.