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Blue Demon basketball in Japan

The basketball team and coaching staff in Japan.
The basketball team and coaching staff in Japan in 1983. (Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)

In December 1983, Blue Demons filled the Japanese cities of Osaka and Tokyo. Thirty-eight members of the DePaul community, including the university president, various vice presidents, the men’s basketball team, six cheerleaders and legendary coach Ray Meyer, arrived in Japan for a special pair of basketball games. 

Established in 1980 and hosted by advertising firm Tele Planning International, Inc., the Suntory Ball brought American college basketball teams to Japan to play in NCAA-sanctioned, regular season games to promote the popularity of basketball in Japan. In the end, DePaul would defeat both Alabama and Texas Tech in the Suntory Ball, helping to continue what would ultimately become a 16-game winning streak. The road to the Suntory Ball, however, wasn’t always as smooth.  

A Japanese promotional poster for the 1983 Suntory Ball. (Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)
A Japanese promotional poster for the 1983 Suntory Ball. (Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)
DePaul’s involvement with the Suntory Ball began with a fax sent from TPI’s General Manager, Michi Jinno, to DePaul Athletic Director Edward Manetta in November 1982. This fax was practical in nature, containing only an invitation to the 1982 Suntory Ball and a brief overview of the tournament. Four days later, a letter from TPI’s president, Atsushi Fujita, arrived. The letter described the short history of the tournament and explained the growing popularity of basketball in Japan. Fujita said through watching American college basketball, Japanese fans could experience “the thrill and dynamism of true American College basketball…in order to stimulate and heighten the level of basketball in Japan.” 

DePaul accepted TPI’s invitation, though eventually decided the team would participate in the 1983 tournament instead. In February 1983, however, the U.S.’s governing basketball body, then the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States of America, dropped a bombshell on Edward Manetta. TPI had not requested the permission of Japan’s governing basketball body, the Japan Basketball Association, to host the Suntory Ball. This permission was a requirement of the International Basketball Federation, meaning the games DePaul played in Japan would not count towards their regular season unless TPI obtained this permission. Relations between TPI and JABBA were poor and an agreement had still not been reached as late as October 1983. 

Despite these issues, planning for the Japan trip went ahead. DePaul and TPI exchanged endless letters about the final itinerary and other details. Howard Sulkin, a member of the traveling party and vice president for institutional planning and research, held three informational sessions on Japan’s culture and history for trip attendees. 

Eventually, TPI and JABBA came to an agreement. The culture and history lessons were held in November so as not to conflict with final exams, and the 38-person DePaul traveling party left O’Hare International Airport on Dec. 12, 1983. After brief stops in Seattle and Tokyo, they arrived in Osaka on Dec. 13.

Though the two wins were a highlight of the trip, but the excursion to Japan would have been a success no matter what. Marc Kurkiewicz, photo editor of “The DePaulia,” paid his own way to Japan to serve as the team’s official photographer. In his piece for “The DePaulia” covering the trip, Kurkiewicz highlighted small aspects that might otherwise have gotten lost in the basketball hype. He told of the basketball players’ joy upon discovering both a McDonald’s and a pastry shop right next door to the hotel. 

He wrote of Japanese fans mobbing DePaul players, an experience player Marty Embry responded to with, “It’s fun to have the attention, but we need bodyguards.” He described players Kevin Holmes and Tony Jackson demonstrating “the wave” and breakdancing to Osaka locals on the street. 

To see what the trip truly meant to the players, it is perhaps best to consult the piece that team co-captain Tyrone Corbin wrote for the “Chicago Sun-Times” from Tokyo. Corbin spoke about various aspects of Japan – how kind everyone was, the difficulty of the language barrier, how small the seats on Japan Air Lines were. He noted that, with the exception of one player, no one on the team had been outside the United States before. 

“When it came time to choose a college, I visited Memphis State, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Tennessee Tech, Mississippi and DePaul,” Corbin wrote. “I chose DePaul because it offered me everything I was looking for – academics, big-time basketball and the chance to start a business career in a major city. They say college life should be an educational experience and I know this excursion will always stand out in our minds.” 

In the end, DePaul’s trip to Japan was about much more than just basketball. As Corbin noted, it was an experience that was quintessentially DePaul – encouraging students to step outside the classroom or basketball court in order to expand their horizons.