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Now, does all this make the players mere jet-lagged pawns in a high-stakes money game? To a certain extent, yes. But the NBA's basic bargaining agreement guarantees that players receive 53% of all revenues. The more sweatshirts sold in Kyoto, the more moo-la makes its way to, say, Milwaukee.
"Just think of this whole global picture as a big pie," said Charles Grantham, executive director of the NBA Players Association. "The bigger that pie gets, the bigger the piece for the players." But how about asking athletes to play regular-season games—and meaningful ones, considering that Phoenix and Utah are two of the Western Conference powers—in a foreign land? Said Grantham: "How long could you continue to sell some meaningless games to a market that was gathering steam? They had to be regular-season games." Stern couldn't have summarized the NBA's position more eloquently.
The commissioner, who made a stop in Los Angeles on his way home to attend Sunday night's Clipper-Golden State game—the man does earn his $5.5 million a year salary—said he envisioned global openers being played "on a periodic rather than regular basis." But don't count on it being merely periodic; Stern sees the world as one big NBA supermarket, and as the song says, there's such a lot of world to see. During a brief stay in China before going to Tokyo, Stern and his wife, Diane, even met an NBA fan in the city of Xian. "Ah, the NBA," a woman said to the Sterns. "I once saw the Los Angeles team play the team of the red oxen." She meant the Chicago Bulls.
Burgeoning Pacific markets were hardly on the minds of the Jazz when the team left for Tokyo from New York City's JFK Airport on the afternoon of Oct. 30. An arduous and disappointing 1-7 preseason had taken the Jazz to Chicago, Nashville, Las Vegas, Toronto and, finally, Providence, where the team had been blown out by the Celtics 120-102 on Oct. 29, the day before the 15-hour flight to Tokyo. Sloan's theory on fighting fatigue and jet lag had his players working out as soon as they arrived in Tokyo. He said at a press conference last week that athletes "need to get out and work a little" after a tiring trip, at which point his two superstars, Malone and Stockton, who were sitting nearby, rolled their eyes.
The Suns, meanwhile, had begun adjusting their body clocks to Tokyo time (which is 16 hours ahead of Phoenix's Mountain Standard Time) right after their final exhibition game, in Chicago on Oct. 27. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons kept the Suns awake during the flight home-from Chicago—"It's easier doing that than keeping them awake on the court," he said later—and held 3 a.m. practices in Phoenix on Oct. 29 and 30. The team left for Tokyo a few hours after the second one.
Amid practice sessions, press conferences and team dinners, the players squeezed in what sightseeing and socializing they could in Tokyo. On one two-hour sweep through the Shinjuku section of the city last Thursday afternoon, Malone bought three ties, for 35,000 yen (about $300), met several Japanese students wearing MAILMAN MALONE sweatshirts, tried—and failed—to find a pair of size-15 sneakers, gulped down an order of fries at a McDonald's (official Japanese translation: McFry potatoes) and made himself the benefactor of that street person, a man with a scrawny cat on his shoulder.
Stockton, meanwhile, was determined to see Tokyo's Meiji shrine, built in memory of Emperor Mutsuhito (1867-1912), and enlisted a driver and a guide to take him there. The confused driver took one look at Stockton's sneakers and shorts (not his basketball duds) and promptly drove him to the arena. By the time the car fought its way back through the brutal Tokyo traffic, the gates of the shrine were closed for the day. "Well," said Stockton, "I tried."
Fitzsimmons spent much of his limited free time with his wife, JoAnn, who had come to Tokyo at Johnson's expense; a few weeks earlier, KJ had bid $7,000 at a charity auction for two trips to Tokyo for the NBA series, and he gave the tickets to JoAnn Fitzsimmons and Patricia Burks, the woman who helped Johnson start the St. Hope Academy, a foundation for kids from the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento where Johnson grew up. Cotton also used his considerable talent for verbal persuasion to woo Japanese fans to Phoenix's side. "Look, you gotta root for us," the Suns' coach told them. "I see eye to eye with you. Jerry Sloan's much too tall."
And so was Phoenix's 6'10" Tom Chambers, who reduced one Japanese television reporter to giddiness when she stared up at him during an interview.
"Why are you so big?" she asked between giggles, getting the interview off to a slow start.