Back in 2015, I worked for Under Armour right when it was on the come up. Stephen Curry (not “Steph” Curry — he didn’t like the abbreviation) just won his first MVP and his first ring. I was the Creative Director for his upcoming Asia tour, dubbed the UA Roadshow. My task was to document his every move throughout the entire tour, which encompassed three countries and five cities in what amounted to be just a short five days.
I had a couple of worries when I was assigned to lead the project. First, Stephen — in my brief interactions with him (I had a couple of meetings before we embarked on the trip) — didn’t display characteristics of an extrovert, outgoing, fun dude, which meant I needed to be my best extroverted self to even meet him more than halfway — and I’m no extrovert, so I was concerned. I needed Stephen to open up and not treat us like NBA reporters and give us well versed answers and cookie cutter comments.
My second worry was personal. My wife was thirty-five weeks pregnant and she had a hunch that the baby would come out early. I took that hunch as one hundred percent to be on point.
Our first stop was Tokyo. This would’ve been my third visit to Japan. My first was in 2004, when, working as an automotive journalist, I covered a Super-GT race, which brought me to Tokachi in the northern part of the country called Hokkaido. My second time was in 2012. My then-girlfriend — now pregnant wife — and I spent an entire week in Tokyo, shopping, touristing, and basically securing and cementing our future as two lovers who can navigate foreign lands hand-in-hand without wanting to escape and-or kill each other.
So when I landed in Tokyo for the UA Roadshow, the first thing I did was cherish the moment — and I did completely taking in the sights and sounds of the country — then I immediately enjoyed the perks of the Ritz Carlton in midtown (among all the Under Armour staff members, my team was one of the few allowed to stay in the same hotel as the MVP), and of course, I also wanted to visit my friends, Tetsu and Koichi.
As an avid basketball fan, Lakers die hard, to chase the biggest name in the NBA around Tokyo, Philippines, and China was a dream. My job was to fill Under Armour’s social media channels with real-time content, from Instagram to Snapchat, photos, videos, and text, a twenty-first-century career ambition realized.
We arrived two days early and as soon as I dropped off my luggage at the hotel, I hit up Tetsu and Koichi, and we drank sake in tiny bars and roamed Shibuya, all a welcomed respite not just for the sip of alcohol, but also for the necessary rest and sleep and acclimating to the region — because unknown to me at the time, I wouldn’t catch sleep for the next seventy-two hours.
The work began the night Stephen landed. We’ve hyped up the entire event through all the social channels saying that we’d provide real-time content for Stephen Curry fans, NBA fans, Warriors fans, and Under Armour executives and shareholders.
One of my early successes in the project was hiring Devin Allen as my main photographer. I figured if he could cover the Baltimore riots and become one of only two amateur photographers to get a photo on the cover of Time Magazine, I was confident he could give me magic with the quiet and brooding Stephen Curry. So we stayed up until four in the morning to capture Stephen coming out of the airport terminal. His arrival gate was a private one, but that didn’t stop his fans from filling up the international terminal (inside a totally separate building) waiting for the MVP to land. There were at least two hundred Stephen Curry fans waiting, not knowing that they will not get a chance to see the champ roll out of the gate. But when I saw them that early in the morning, eager and excited, I knew I was in for a special five days.
…from Instagram to Snapchat, photos, videos, and text, a twenty-first-century career ambition realized.
The special Stephen Curry introduction event was the next day and it was subdued in all aspects. Under Armour rented out a convention hall in the Ropponggi Hills and the only people in attendance were UA employees, their friends and family, and other business partners. It was the first time the MVP had set foot in Japan, but it wouldn’t be a scene I would call raucous or even lively, I mean, it was the MVP of the NBA in the flesh, running through drills that when witnessed closely revealed why the underrated point guard from Davidson came from the proverbial bottom to the proverbial here. His jumpshot was on point — even in practice.
Tokyo Street Ball
I’m sure the kids in the drills were excited but I felt it should’ve been more hyped than what it was. Stephen did the basic drills with these kids and I started to wonder how Japanese kids think about the world of basketball in the first place. It really hasn’t been a standard sport for the Japanese unlike baseball or its national pastime sumo wrestling. In fact, how many Japanese ballers have walked into an NBA court as a professional?
After the event, we ventured out into the Tokyo neighborhoods in search of Japanese kids playing hoops. Our UA Japan counterparts took us to a park on top of a small hill overlooking Ropponggi. There were three basketball courts with an apartment building as a backdrop — similar to that of Harlem’s Rucker Park.
There was a light rain when we arrived and for me, an L.A. native, who was brought up to avoid the rain I surmised that there would be no way anyone would be playing ball in the rain — in the middle of the week, on a school night. When we arrived on top of that hill to three, full-court basketball courts, I was surprised to see all courts full of kids playing five-on-five #ballislife. These kids dressed in their best American get-ups with one rocking a Jake Delhomme jersey and the rest rocking baggy jeans and shorts and almost all of them wearing the latest styles in the sneaker world: KDs, Kobes, and LeBrons. The scene was phenomenal as if we had discovered an ancient faraway land with its ancient faraway peoples still in command. But the truth was that I was simply oblivious to the power of basketball and how far and wide it has spread.
The one thing that cemented it all, Japan’s true love for basketball, is the scene behind the courts. There was a large camphor tree that stood overlooking the courts. In the dark, it wasn’t easy to see, but as I stepped in for a closer look, I noticed that every branch on this tree was littered with old basketball sneakers, hanging from their laces, power-line style.
Each time I’ve visited Japan, I’ve always experienced something magical — in part because traveling to foreign lands always gives me a new sense of hope and an overwhelming sense of expansion of the heart and soul — but there’s something about Japan, its people and its places, that helps me completely understand that anything is possible.
We left for Manila the next day, and I hope I get the chance to see Japan and my friends again.