Nike's disciples pack arena's pews
September 15, 1996
YOKOHAMA, Japan — It was at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when a Japanese journalist asked Michael Jordan how it feels to be God.
Well it took some time for the first coming to happen, but "God" finally made it to Japan, and 32,000 devoted followers packed the temple of the Yokohama Arena for two nights of services to pay homage to the greatest basketball player this side of the pearly gates.
For everything the Nike Hoop Heroes Tour was — part exhibition, part fashion show, part comedy act and part shopping spree — it was not a basketball game. It was a celebration of the man who has become synonymous with the Nike swoosh ever since he first soared over an inner city blacktop in his first commercial in 1985.
But for the Japanese fans who donated up to $500 for the cause, it didn't seem to matter if there was a game or not.
"Wow, it was great! The performance was oriented toward the fans. These guys are real superstars," said 19-year-old Naomi Takahashi.
"I was a little disappointed at first that there was no game, but as the night went on, each performance made me feel real good."
These well-orchestrated exhibitions were a chance to showcase the most popular athlete in the world in a relaxed setting, where the court was his pulpit and the 2-hour event was the vehicle from which to deliver his sermon before a congregation of faithful followers.
"In order to see his real talents you'd have to see a real game," said 25-year-old Noriaki Muria. "But I still saw a lot of talent out there. I'm just glad he came to Japan."
From the time he stepped on the court, wearing next year's model of Air Jordans, the crowd was mesmerized by everything the Chicago Bulls' superstar did.
With more pyrotechnics, strobe lights and throbbing rock music than a Van Halen concert, it was an event P.T. Barnum would've been proud of.
There were contests of every denomination, three-point shooting, 1-on-1's and 4-on-4's. There was even a 3-on-3 pitting fellow Nike disciples Charles Barkley, Jason Kidd and Michael Finley against American-born sumo wrestlers Akebono, Musashimaru and Konishiki, with Jordan acting as the referee.
It's a safe bet that you'll never look at basketball the same way again once you've seen the 650-pound Konishiki take Barkley to the hole, or watch Akebono post up and then kick the ball out to Musashimaru for the open jumper behind the three-point arc.
Jordan also took on a couple of Japanese 10-year-olds — mano a mano — and then squared off with Barkley in a game of H-O-R-S-E, which was changed to N-I-K-E.
Anything and everything to push the product. It's all part of Nike's marketing plan to conquer Japan the way Toyota took the United States by storm. Basketball seems to be the perfect vehicle to accomplish that goal.
"I think the Japanese people are very fortunate to have an opportunity to see Michael play in person," Barkley said. "Tonight was a fun event and I hope everybody had a good time. Because that's what basketball should be: just a lot of fun."
And if you can sell a few pairs of Nike shoes along the way, that's even better.