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Basketball: Warriors president sees strong growth prospects in Japan

Rick Welts, President and Chief Operating Officer of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, poses for a photo after an interview with Kyodo News at the head office of Rakuten Inc. in Tokyo, on Dec. 5, 2018. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- As an emerging generation of players raises hopes of a new dawn for Japanese basketball, the NBA's premier franchise is looking to build a long-term presence in the country, the Golden State Warriors' Hall-of-Fame executive Rick Welts says.

Visiting Tokyo this week to meet with Warriors jersey sponsor Rakuten, team President and Chief Operating Officer Welts told Kyodo News the NBA can build on its already strong following in Japan if the likes of the Memphis Grizzlies' Yuta Watanabe and college star Rui Hachimura establish themselves in the league.

An NBA lifer whose career has spanned the breadth of professional basketball, the 65-year-old Welts knows a little about the league's history with Japan.

He worked for the NBA when it staged its first regular season game overseas -- a 119-96 win by the Phoenix Suns over the Utah Jazz at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in 1990 -- and was on the staff at the Suns when Yuta Tabuse made history in 2004 by becoming the first Japanese to play, albeit very briefly, in the world's top league.

"The NBA looked at Japan as this great untested, untapped market and I think we were very naive about how to go about building basketball and the NBA," Welts said of the league's first foray into Japan.

"At the time, we were a much smaller organization...even as a domestic property, we were not nearly as popular as we are today."

"The advice we got was that we needed to bring a real game, a real regular-season game, because that is what Japanese fans will associate with, and we hadn't done that anywhere else in the world."

"It was a wonderful experience, but the reality is we didn't have a foundation or infrastructure to take advantage of that."

Welts said the NBA spent a lot of money in those early visits to Japan, with 12 regular season games played here between 1990 and 2003, but did not leave a base to build upon.

Now, in his role with the Warriors, Welts aims to use the team's relationship with Japan's e-commerce behemoth Rakuten to make up for lost time, saying the sponsorship deal might one day give local fans the chance to watch the team's galaxy of stars on Japanese soil.

"You might guess that (a game in Japan is) being discussed. We have this partner in Rakuten that feels like competition in Japan would be really helpful to building the NBA brand," Welts said.

"There's no news to be broken here right now...but, hopefully, we'll have some NBA basketball in Japan soon."

Welts wants Japan to "love" both the NBA and, by extension, his Warriors. He says there are some natural synergies, given the team's base in the Bay Area, home to a large community of Japanese Americans, and its proximity to the forward-looking tech hub of Silicon Valley.

Asked about the rise of Watanabe and Hachimura -- who has led Gonzaga University in his junior season to a 9-0 record and a recent title at the prestigious Maui Invitational in Hawaii, Welts was cautiously optimistic, having seen little of either player.

The Seattle-born Welts speculated that if the Warriors could somehow draft Hachimura in the 2019 NBA Draft, where Sports Illustrated recently predicted him to be selected in the top eight, it would "be popular in the Bay Area."

But with the team boasting superstars such as Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, the Warriors, NBA champions in three of the past four seasons, would likely need to trade for a draft pick if they had designs on the highly-touted Hachimura.

Nevertheless, just having Japanese players in the league is a boon for the Warriors, Welts said, given the team's targeting of the country as a growth market.

Thinking back to Tabuse, who at 38 still plays for the Tochigi Brex in the B. League, Welts said the Suns had been amazed at the interest the diminutive point guard generated despite limited court time in his four-game NBA career.

"I was the president of the Phoenix Suns and Yuta Tabuse was our player, the first Japanese player, (there was a) frenzy around that. We went from having no Japanese media around our team to having 20 Japanese media around our team every game for a kid who didn't play much in our league."

"If we could have a player who really had a significant role in a team...it would definitely accelerate the development opportunity."

Welts -- sporting an enormous diamond-encrusted ring he received upon being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in September -- can lean on the incredible success of his team to help its push in Asia.

In two-time MVP Curry, the Warriors have a key cog in the marketing machine. The sharp-shooting point guard, who has a small frame by NBA standards, is particularly relatable to aspiring players in Asia.

But it is Curry's off-court persona that proves just as valuable to Welts, who praises members of his own franchise, as well as other NBA teams, who have spoken out on important issues.

"In many cases they have great standing to do that because of their own life experiences, or because of the platform they have been given and their popularity," Welts said.

"Two of the greatest examples on our team: (head coach) Steve Kerr has been a consistent gun control advocate -- his father was assassinated, he has standing in that conversation. (And) what you've seen over the last couple of months with Steph Curry and gender equality is borne out of the right place."

"If you have met (Curry's) mom, if you have met his wife, if you have seen his two daughters, his whole life has been surrounded by amazing women."

With a hugely successful and marketable team at his disposal, Welts is now looking for ways to use the relationship with Rakuten to build for the future.

"I do think we are drawn to what's next...we assume we have to evolve to doing things in new ways," he said.

"Rakuten is the definition of being on the cutting edge of doing things in new ways and I think they are such a natural partner."

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