Not far from the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the futuristic landmark on the banks of Huangpu River, just blocks from the upscale shopping malls, trendy restaurants and clogged roads filled with expensive imported automobiles, one can hear the shouts of competition, the bounce of a ball off concrete and feel the passion of raw play around a solitary rim and net.
Hundreds of miles to the north in the capital city of Beijing, on one side of Chang’an Dajie, the majestic, 100-yard wide boulevard that has hosted parades by the Red Army — complete with tanks and missiles warheads providing fearsome images beamed round the world — is Dong Dan Park, now an oasis of happy squeals and the sound leather balls being dribbled on concrete.
Barely a half-mile away, through the Tiananmen Gate, is the entrance to the Forbidden City, for roughly 500 years the round of the imperial palace, where only the inner circles of the Ming and Ching dynasties were permitted. But in recent years, just past where tourists pay their fee and show their tickets, there has been a pair of backboards where guards could play two-on-two during their breaks.
“Basketball is a part of the Chinese culture,” said Meng Wang, an analyst and commentator for Tencent, which has grown into China’s largest and most most used Internet service portal. “It is a game that has long been enjoyed by the population, even before all of this.”
All of this is the 10th edition of the China Games, where the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans sweep into Shanghai and Beijing for a pair of preseason games Sunday and Wednesday that bring all of the glitz, glamor and excitement — not to mention widely known NBA stars such as James Harden and Anthony Davis — to the most populous nation on the planet.
Just 14 years after native son Yao Ming was chosen with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft by the Rockets, as a 7-foot-6 bridge between diverse cultures, to an American eye, there is a sense of familiarity inside the Oriental Sports Arena, where 16,000 fans packed the stands on Friday to watch informal practices, 3-point and free throw shooting competitions and even a dance contest between rookie players. From the rock music blaring the from the speakers, dancers gyrating, tumblers flipping and cartoonish mascots performing their comic routines, it might as well be any NBA arena from Miami to Portland.
The snap judgment is to say that in a land where spiked heels and miniskirts now walk along the Great Wall at Badaling, where Dunkin’ Donuts and Old Navy elbow their way into a landscape where traditional vendors sell locust-on-a-stick and deep-fried scorpion from their carts, that China has quickly caught on.
China’s history with game runs deep
But the truth is China’s roots in the “American game” run deep. It was in 1896, when Dr. James Naismith nailed up his first peach basket at his gymnasium in Springfield, Mass., that a government official named Piengiane introduced the game to China. It caught on immediately and has always been a deeply ingrained part of the culture, long before a time of Yao and something called “Linsanity.”
Basketball participation never flagged during the Chinese civil war in the 1930s and was eventually given a prominent place in the People’s Republic of China when Chou En Lai, the first prime minister, endorsed the game for its contribution to fitness and promotion of teamwork. The game even survived the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals and artists were sent to labor camps and jail, even executed. Basketball was not only tolerated but also encouraged during the reign of Chairman Mao Zedong.
“As much as the Chinese have always liked the game, it was maybe hard to think that basketball would ever become so big like this,” Wang said.
The fans gather outside the team hotels seeking autographs, photos or just a glimpse of the players.
“Harden is so handsome,” was a phrase repeated over and over outside the Ritz-Carlton in the Pudong section of Shanghai. “He is our favorite.”
But they are not just star-worshippers. They know everyone from second-year Rocket Sam Dekker, who was injured and did not play as a rookie, to veteran center Nene.
“Hey, K.J. McDaniel! Over here!” shouts another fan.
It is a relationship between the NBA and China — the second-largest market in the world — that has taken off well, like a rocket.
The first Asian player ever drafted in the NBA was China’s Sung Tao by the Atlanta Hawks in the third round in 1987. The first to play in an NBA game was 7-footer Wang Zhizhi, who played five games with the Dallas Mavericks in 1999. Next was Mengke Bateer, who joined the Denver Nuggets in 2002.
But it was Yao who threw the doors wide open as the top overall pick, became an eight-time All-Star, a worldwide celebrity as a pitchman/endorser for dozens of products, and was inducted with Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2016, in September. He was with the Rockets for nine seasons, was healthy and played for seven full seasons and retired prematurely in 2011 following a series of debilitating foot injuries.
“I never had a dream that all of this could happen,” Yao said last week in a trip back to Texas. “I was not scared when I arrived in Houston for the first time. Maybe say I was nervous. To think that we are at this point is beyond expectation.”
However, it was no beyond the expectation of former NBA commissioner David Stern, who pushed hard for the league to push into Asia in general and China specifically. Stern likes to tell of his early visits to China in the 1990s when he would be asked feverish questions about the Bulls, the “Team of the Red Oxen.”
Chinese fans, like those all over the globe, were attracted to Michael Jordan like moths to a flame. While Yao, of course, was popular as one of their own and the Shaq’s great size and strength was awed and respected, most of their admiration is for guards and wing players. Harden, Stephen Curry and LeBron James are favorites.
“Much of it has to do with them not being the biggest man on the court,” Big Xu, a well-known analyst and TV commentator, has said. “Not having the size, but still being able to carry the day to find a way to win is an admired trait. Those attributes of cleverness and great will are highly regarded in China.”
“Kobe Bryant is almost a god,” said Meng, whose posts on Tencent can reach upwards of 1 million views.
Roughly 400 regular season NBA games will be shown free in the 2016-17 season and all the rest will be streamed for a fee by Tencent.
Harden has made numerous trips to China on behalf his partnership with Adidas.
“These fans get it, they really do,” he said. “They follow the game, they really study the game. They know the guys on the end of the bench for every team, not just the big names. It’s so much fun to come here and see the enthusiasm.”
The arrival of Yao in 2002 created enthusiasm inside the basketball world, supposedly throwing open the door to so many possibilities in terms of more players. Now every NBA club is scouting China, hopeful of finding the next star. Forward Yi Jianlian was drafted No. 6 overall by Milwaukee in 2007 and spent five seasons in the NBA playing for the New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards and Dallas Mavericks before returning to the Chinese Basketball Association in 2012. Now he has signed on with the L.A. Lakers for this season. The Rockets made Zhou Qi a second round draft pick in June and will monitor the progress of the young, slight-of-build big man for the future. When Yao and Yi met for the first time in an NBA game during the 2007-08 season, the game that was shown live early in the morning, drew a TV audience of more than 200 million. That is comparable to the Super Bowl.
Yao going to NBA sparked enthusiasm
While China’s fondness for basketball is more than a century old, it was Yao that turned that interest into a voracious appetite. He is back living and working as a businessman in his hometown of Shanghai and is the owner of the Shanghai Sharks of the CBA.
“Every player in the NBA owes a debt of gratitude to Yao Ming,” said Rockets team president Tad Brown. “He’s opened up incredible doors on the market front. He’s opened up incredible opportunities for the league to continue to expand and grow. It’s something that’s happened. I think the most important thing, what is universal, you have to be able to play.
“The reason Yao was drafted No. 1 is that he had the ability to the best center in the world. That’s why (Rockets owner) Leslie (Alexander) drafted him No. 1. All the other stuff was gonna be nice and worked out. But he had to be able to play basketball. That’s the way it is with Zhou Qi right now. We are very hopeful that this young man can be a very good basketball player. He just happens to be from China.
“But you need to continue to develop the game and continue to grow the game and the way the game has exploded in China is in direct relation to Yao Ming’s ability and Yao Ming’s ability to handle all the pressures that he had to face when he first came into the league and when he grew in his career. I can tell you that everybody in the league — teams, players, executives — owe a great deal of gratitude for everything he has done for the game of basketball.”
The Rockets have hired a consulting firm out of New York to further their presence in social media in China.
“No team is more aggressive,” said representative Jessica Beineke. “First because of Yao Ming and then because of the continue interest of the club, it’s not an exaggeration to call the Rockets China’s team. There is the link.”
The Rockets have scheduled the ceremony to retire Yao Ming’s No. 11 jersey and hang it from the rafters of Houston’s Toyota Center for Feb. 2 to coincide with the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration.
“The timing of the event is designed to make sure we have the maximum impact globally so that people can recognize Yao in the manner that he can be recognized and that someday one of those kids can be watching live in China,” Brown said. “We’re hoping to get 300 million viewers and maybe some of them can realize that if I work someday I too can make it to the Hall of Fame and some day get my jersey retired by an NBA team. That’s for any kid all over the world. But specifically the people that he is giving hope and an inspiration to in his home country.”
This is the Rockets’ third time taking part in the China Games. Teams are only permitted to take part in international trips every three years and the Rockets don’t ever have to be asked twice or cajoled.
“When I spoke with (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver back in the spring and we thought that the odds were very good that Yao would be selected for the Hall of Fame, we both thought it was only natural that we come here this season as part of that celebration,” said Brown. “And three years from now, when Adam is looking around again, you can be sure that we’ll have our hand up.”