David Stern is set to retire in February 2014, after completing exactly 30 years of service as commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA). In transforming the NBA from a drug-addled public-relations nightmare of a league into a multi-billion dollar entity, Stern’s proudest accomplishment is growing the game globally.
After investing in Europe for the better part of a decade following the fall of communism in the Eastern Bloc countries, Stern set his sights on Asia as a new frontier. He was fortunate that Yao Ming came along just as the NBA’s popularity exploded in China. And then “Linsanity” picked up steam two years ago to keep that momentum going.
This October, eight NBA teams played preseason exhibition games overseas, and half of those games were played in Asia. The Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers met for a pair in the Philippines and Taiwan last week, and the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors faced off in Beijing and Shanghai this week.
Of course, Houston guard Jeremy Lin, whose parents came from Taiwan, was greeted with a raucous reception in his ancestral homeland. And he did not disappoint his adoring fans, bringing down the house at Taipei Arena as the Rockets rode his hot shooting to victory.
But the NBA’s appeal in Asia nowadays isn’t limited to just the popularity of native sons or homegrown favorites. It’s popular, period.
“The NBA would be playing games and doing business in Asia even if Jeremy Lin had never made it to the big time. You can't come up with many markets that mean more to the NBA and its players (than Asia),” ESPN’s Senior NBA Writer Marc Stein told The Diplomat. “But now that he's here – even though it's been a while since we were in the full throes of Linsanity – rest assured that the NBA is thrilled it can trumpet a player with legit ties to a region that matters so much to the league.”
The most beloved NBA player in China arguably is neither Yao Ming – even before his retirement two years ago – or Lin, but Kobe Bryant. While his reputation in the U.S. has finally been fully rehabilitated from a dubious 2004 sexual assault case, his fan base in China has only grown both in size and in passion.
When he visited China in August to see the famed Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, Bryant had to cut his tour short because he was nearly physically overwhelmed by an adoring mob. A video of a Chinese fan crying uncontrollably after catching a glimpse of Kobe has since gone viral.
Partly because of Bryant, his Los Angeles Lakers are probably the most popular NBA team in China and much of Asia. But that’s actually not something entirely new. The large Asian immigrant population in Southern California has long had a hand in making the Lakers the home team back in their homelands.
This author, who spent his childhood in the 1970s and early ‘80s in Taiwan, vividly remembers the popularity of Magic Johnson and the Lakers even back then. The 1982 NBA Finals, which the Lakers won in six games over the Philadelphia 76ers, were shown on a tape-delayed basis on local television, much to the delight to a nascent fan base.
As evidence of how far the NBA has come, now the league is considering changing some of the times of regular-season games so its Asian fans can watch them live at a reasonable hour.
“I think that the NBA is going to have to wrestle over the next decade as more and more of our viewing audiences are outside the United States is what’s the best time for games to be played so that those fans can enjoy them live as opposed to having to get up in China to watch an NBA game at 7 o’clock in the morning,” Stern said in Beijing earlier this week. “I think that’s a fun problem that we’re going to be addressing because so much viewing is happening outside the United States now.”
The NBA will play two regular-season games outside of North America this season, one each in Mexico City and London. But while Major League Baseball has played regular-season games on the other side of the Pacific – in Japan last season and with more scheduled for Australia in 2014 – the NBA has not staged a regular-season game in Asia since the Sacramento Kings and Seattle SuperSonics opened the 2003-04 season in Saitama, Japan.
“I'm quite sure that the only impediment to more frequent regular-season NBA games in Asia is the distance and the time it takes teams to recover from the rigors of the travel. It's really only what happens after those trips that NBA teams have issues with,” Stein told The Diplomat. “And you can see where they're coming from, in a sport with a regular season as compacted as the NBA's, if it takes, say, a week to return to normalcy after getting back from Asia. NBA teams can't afford a week of catch-up.”
It might be the last thing that Stern will have to figure out before he heads into retirement next February. And given his track record, he just might make it happen before he’s done.