Hoops dreams alive, well behind China’s Great Wall
With the NFL, college football and the World Series all playing simultaneously, the NBA might be the last thing on sports fans’ minds right now. But to many of the one billion-plus inhabitants of China, basketball is the biggest deal in town all the time.This was certainly the case last week when two NBA preseason games between the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers took place in the cities of Shanghai and Macao. When watching the first of the two games on ESPN, I got the sense that Chinese fans were genuinely excited to watch an exhibition match between two mediocre Eastern Conference teams. Just like in America, LeBron James was the big draw for the crowd. Every time he touched the ball, regardless of what he did with it, cheers would erupt from the stands. And they didn’t seem to choose sides either. Whenever a point was scored, fans could be heard applauding politely, even if it was a role player like Ira Newble or Donyell Marshall. It wasn’t important who won. It was just important that the NBA had made its way to China.Obviously, the Chinese aren’t completely unfamiliar with the sport. They have had professional teams for years and now call one of the NBA’s biggest stars their own. With Yao Ming’s success in America and the Milwaukee Bucks recently drafting Yi Jianlian, China may become as big in the NBA as the NBA is in China.I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the country for three weeks this summer, and I was amazed at the extent to which the NBA in particular, and basketball in general, has permeated the Chinese culture. In the capital city of Beijing, which will play host to next year’s Olympics, American advertisements could be found everywhere, with basketball as a common selling point.One Adidas ad on a major Beijing street featured the Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas, and a Nike billboard featured several Chinese teens dribbling the rock. In Shanghai, the host of the Cavs-Magic game, one shopping mall had entire Adidas and Nike stores with jerseys and shoes of NBAers Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady. Maybe it’s because he looks like a 7-foot-6 Frankenstein, but Yao Ming surprisingly didn’t have the star appeal to sell in his native land.A basketball court in downtown Beijing also carried the Nike swoosh all over. Players pay their money to secure a court for a certain amount of time, and then play the game they love amidst the backdrop of Garnett and Dwyane Wade looking on from a Gatorade poster. Gotta love commercialism.At schools and universities in China’s larger cities, many students favor basketball over any other sport, opting to hit the blacktop over the soccer pitch. I had the chance to play a pick-up game with several Chinese kids, and they could definitely ball. They all had their favorite player (Tim Duncan and T-Mac were shockingly more popular choices than Yao) and emulated their styles in our friendly scrimmage. One of the kids even went so far in his NBA fandom as to memorize information about certain players, including what team they play for and what year they were drafted. Just to test his knowledge, I asked about a few obscure players. I was definitely surprised when the student knew exactly who LaPhonso Ellis played for and when Rashad McCants was drafted. It was at this point that I realized the NBA had arrived in the People’s Republic and won’t be leaving anytime soon.For the Chinese nation, there is a greater meaning associated with sports than the mere fun and game of it. As a nation that has been behind the rest of the world in nearly every imaginable aspect, China has taken great pride in finally catching up in the athletic arena.Nothing exemplifies this quite like the upcoming 2008 Olympic Games. In the United States, most citizens take it for granted when our country plays host to one of the most prestigious global sporting events. In the past 27 years, the U.S. has housed four Olympics. When the torch reaches Beijing in 2008, it will be the communist country’s first.In the host city, you cannot turn your head without seeing some hint that the Olympics are quickly approaching. In the modern parts of town, entire stores sell Olympic memorabilia to tourists and natives alike. Signs and ads for the games are everywhere, and clocks count down the days and hours until the opening ceremony. Even in the rural parts of Beijing, you will find Chinese people excited and proud to have the Olympics coming to their city.With the increased popularity of basketball in China, plans are in the works to expand the NBA’s presence there, according to ESPN.com, in what commissioner David Stern called “the second NBA, the NBA of China.” This new Chinese subsidiary will not only increase the business of Stern’s league, but will continue to spread the basketball gospel to millions of Chinese ballers.So, basketball fans, be prepared to see a lot more players like Yao and Yi in the NBA as the league continues to gain influence overseas.And you might want to start brushing up on your Mandarin.Tyler is a junior majoring in journalism. If you want some tutoring in Chinese, he only took one semester, but he can try to help with the basics if you contact him at [email protected]rald.com.