Today, the Phoenix Suns take on the Dallas Mavericks in Mexico City, Mexico — the first of two games they will play south of the border. They will also play the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday and in doing so will become the first NBA team to ever play two regular-season games in the country of Mexico.
But the Suns aren’t strangers to making history by traveling abroad. Back in 1990, the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz became the first American professional sports franchises to play regular-season games outside of North America when they traveled to Tokyo, Japan for a back-to-back set November 3-4 (November 2-3 in the States) to kick off the 1990-91 season.
“It’s good to be on the cutting edge as the league participates in and does various things,” said then-Suns President Jerry Colangelo at the time.
Whereas Phoenix’s current trip to Mexico City — their first regular-season journey outside the United States and Canada since the Japan trip — will only feature an hour time difference (with Mexico City being an hour ahead of Phoenix time), the Suns had to deal with a 16-hour time difference in Tokyo, prompting head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons to hold a handful of practices at 3am Phoenix time before the team left for Japan.
Along with inconveniences like jet lag or snarls of Tokyo traffic, adjusting to the cuisine was a challenge as well. Apparently, most players stayed within their dietary comfort zones and away from the sushi bars, and Fitzsimmons was quoted during the trip as saying, “I tried that food before. I have to say I couldn’t eat it. But nowadays, I don't eat a lot of things.”
Despite the inherent challenges that come with playing halfway around the world, there was much for the Suns to enjoy on their historic trip. Kurt Rambis spotted a few Japanese fans sporting his iconic horn-rimmed “Rambo” glasses while Dan Majerle marveled at how few people asked for autographs. Fitzsimmons, meanwhile, appreciated the polite nature of the Japanese media. “They don’t have their sabres out. They’re relaxed,” he told the Deseret News.
Tom Chambers may have received the oddest question of the visit, though. While doing a local television interview with a reporter, her first question to him according to the Deseret News was “Why are you so tall??!!”
As for the games themselves, both were sellouts as 10,111 fans flocked to Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium to see the two NBA teams in person.
The Suns throttled the Jazz in the opener, winning 119-96 in Utah’s designated home game. Chambers led Phoenix with 38 points and 10 rebounds, out-dueling Utah’s Karl Malone (33 points, 10 rebounds). Kevin Johnson added 29 points and 10 assists, and Majerle chipped in 16 points off the bench.
Nov. 4 would see a reversal of fortune for the Suns, who lost 102-101 in their “home” game. Karl Malone was too much for the Suns inside, putting Phoenix’s front line in foul trouble as he paraded to the foul line 19 times en route to a 29-point, 14-rebound outing. Thurl Bailey (15 points, nine rebounds) and John Stockton (15 points, four assists) contributed to the cause.
Phoenix was led by Kevin Johnson (28 points) and Chambers (19 points) but the pair shot a combined 11 of 34 (32.4 percent) from the field. Eddie Johnson and Kenny Battle each had 11 points off the bench.
Here are some highlights from the season-opening win by Phoenix: