U.S. squad finds fans in Japan much warmer than tough Olympic crowd

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

SAITAMA, Japan -- As the United States was rolling through play in the world championships, Dwyane Wade couldn't help but notice that something seemed missing.

"No booing," he said.

The absence of those ugly sounds was a welcome change for Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, who listened to them on a nightly basis while playing for an unpopular U.S. Olympic team two years ago.

"We heard some real foul stuff back in 2004," Anthony said.

But it's been almost entirely cheers this time for the Americans, who headed into their quarterfinal matchup with Germany this morning as perhaps the biggest tournament favorites, both on and off the court.

In their first game here on Sunday, the Americans were cheered on by a crowd that included one fan from the Philippines who was wearing a James Cleveland Cavaliers jersey and holding a sign that asked Wade for marriage.

"You go out on the court and you see all the fans chanting 'USA,"' James said, "and they're not from the USA."

Terrorism fears following 9/11 kept many American fans -- not to mention some NBA players who were supposed to suit up for the U.S. -- from traveling to Athens. With little support from their own fans and declining U.S. popularity around the world because of the war in Iraq, the Americans felt like they were playing road games.

"We weren't even expecting any cheers coming out here," Wade said. "It was a surprise to us, it was a great surprise, that we could come out here and gain some fans."

Actually, James had a feeling they were coming.

As the NBA and its partners have found a thriving market in Asia, some players had already established a presence and recognition in the Far East. Posters and ads featuring James, Elton Brand and Kobe Bryant greet passengers getting off the subway stop in front of the Saitama Super Arena.

James has spent part of the last two summers in Asia making promotional appearances for Nike, with stops last year in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Beijing. His shoe marketed only in China sold out in two hours.

U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski attributed his team's popularity to the way his players have acted. More likely, it has to do with the way they play.

"Japanese people are fascinated with strong teams," said Masa Oshima, a Tokyo resident who is working as a media conference interpreter for FIBA. "If it was a major league All-Star team, the same thing would be happening. But if it was the American soccer team, they wouldn't think twice. They would rather follow England and David Beckham.

"They pretty much just want to see a good show, lots of dunks and stuff."

The Americans quickly seized on that, with James and Dwight Howard frequently drawing roars after their dunks -- and that's during pregame warmups.

"Playing overseas, the crowd is a little different than NBA crowds, so just try to get them going," Howard said. "Get the crowd into it early, that way when the game comes they'll be so hyped because they saw us doing all those dunks that they'll want to see them in the game."

By doing so, the Americans have been rewarded with the type of crowd response they got when NBA players first were used in international tournaments. Even when they played an exhibition here against Japan before the 2000 Olympics, Oshima said the Americans received just as much support as the home team.

That had all changed by the time the three U.S. captains arrived in Athens four years later. This time, the Americans sent a better team -- and they're finding that their hosts love it.

"The fans are great and they love the game of basketball," James said. "You don't understand how big it is until you get over (here)."

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