YOKOHAMA, Japan - Shawn Kemp mesmerized a new audience with a high-flying dunk show today as the Sonics opened their season with a 111-94 win over Houston.
Kemp had Japanese fans in the stands even before the game started, and he had legions of them by the end, after his 29-point, 20-rebound performance. One play in particular, a slam on an alley-oop from Nate McMillan in the first half, induced the usually quiet Japanese fans to yell and even wave a few green-and-yellow banners.
The new Japanese Sonics fans will get one more chance to see the team, as Seattle plays Houston again at 7 p.m. Seattle time at the Yokohama Arena.
Kemp and the Sonics dominated inside against Houston, which was playing without All-Star forward Otis Thorpe. The Sonics outrebounded the Rockets 59-39.
On defense, the Sonics consistently limited Houston to one shot. The Rockets grabbed only two offensive rebounds in the first half and 11 in the game. On offense, McMillan and Gary Payton were able to get the ball inside to Kemp, Michael Cage and Benoit Benjamin. Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon played tough inside as always, but close to the basket, the Sonics consistently had him outnumbered.
"We came into this game knowing Seattle was a physical team and a good rebounding team," Houston Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "We knew we would have to make some adjustments. If we had executed on offense, it would've been close to the last minute."
Seattle led most of the first half, but a 12-point Houston run midway through the third quarter gave the Rockets the lead, 69-62. Houston held onto the lead until early in the fourth quarter, when McMillan led the Sonics on a nine-point run that put them ahead 89-85. Seattle never trailed again.
Kemp started Seattle's run with a soft backwards layup from underneath the basket on a pass from McMillan. McMillan then drove for back-to-back layups that put the Sonics ahead. He then fed Eddie Johnson in the left corner for a three-pointer. McMillan finished with nine points and eight assists.
Ricky Pierce scored 19 for the Sonics and Johnson added 16. Cage had nine points and 11 rebounds.
For Houston, Olajuwon, Vernon Maxwell and Kenny Smith each scored 21 points. Olajuwon grabbed 17 rebounds.
With 50 seconds left and the game out of reach, Maxwell was ejected for a flagrant foul when he clotheslined McMillan as McMillan drove toward the basket. McMillan flew to the floor and stayed seated for about a minute, then made both free throws. He was able to finish the game.
Benjamin, however, came out with four minutes left in the third quarter and did not play again. He finished with eight points and eight rebounds, but was noticeably slow getting down the court on offense.
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After the first NBA regular-season games in Japan two years ago sold out, the 10,000-seat Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, the league decided to move to a bigger venue this time.
Yokohama Arena, about 90 minutes from the center of Tokyo by train, holds 15,640 people for basketball. All the tickets for both games sold out right away.
The 90-minute train ride is not unusual for residents of the Tokyo and Yokohama area, the largest single metropolitan area in the world. Many people commute to work every day by train for more than two hours, and the average commute in Tokyo is just under one hour.
-- Eager basketball fans went on a souvenir-buying frenzy before the game, snapping up almost anything that had the NBA's or the teams' logos on it.
Prices were not high by Japanese standards. T-shirts went for $25, sweatshirts for $58 and baseball caps for $42. But by far the most popular item was an $8 plastic megaphone that separates into two halves, so it can be used either to yell through or clap together.
-- Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon said he was apprehensive of trying sushi, but he was surprised to discover he really liked it.
"I'm going to find all the sushi places in Texas," Olajuwon said. The Sonics had a rooting section of about 50 green-and-yellow-clothed Japanese fans. One fan held up a sign that read, "We love Sonics and Mariners."
-- Shawn Kemp had his own rooting section, with about a dozen different signs. One read, "Just dunk it, Kemp." The crowd was noticeably noisier whenever Kemp scored.
On the other side, Olajuwon got the loudest cheers when the players were introduced, and also whenever he scored.
-- The basketball fans at Yokohama Arena were very reserved. The Arena was eerily quiet during free throws, followed by polite applause when the shot was made. The fans were also almost totally quiet when the ball was being worked around on offense, cheering mostly after shots and during timeouts.
- W. Blake Gray