The NBA season is set to begin in less than two weeks, and as is the norm nowadays, teams are barnstorming China in front of adoring and excited fans. This week, the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings played two exhibition games in sold-out arenas in Shanghai and Beijing.
The NBA considers itself a global league and China is its most important market outside of the United States. It’s also no accident that the two teams sent to China this year both boast foreign owners. Mikhail Prokhorov of Russia and Indian-born Vivek Ranadive own the Nets and Kings, respectively.
Adam Silver, who took over as NBA commissioner last year, does not hide his zeal for the Chinese market, where an estimated 100 million fans watch his league regularly. In addition to sending teams to China for exhibitions, he talks about making NBA teams play early Saturday morning games in the States to accommodate the Chinese audience.
“Nothing can be No. 1 at anything in the world unless it is No. 1 in China,” Silver told the Chinese media during this week’s “Global Games” tour in China. “So not only do the Global Games bring the NBA to China, but through broadcasting our games in China around the globe they also bring China to the rest of the world.
“When the potential audience becomes big enough, maybe it’s not so crazy to ask a team once every two months to play a Saturday morning game.”
The only thing is, as much China loves basketball as a sport, basketball does not love it back.
China has produced just one NBA star-caliber player, the now-retired Yao Ming. There have been four other Chinese players who made brief forays into the league, but none achieved much success. There’s been no active Chinese player in the NBA since Yi Jianlian left the Dallas Mavericks and returned to the Guangdong Southern Tigers after the 2012 season.
The lack of talent development has been apparent in the regression of the Chinese national team in international competition. China failed to make it out of the quarterfinals in the just-concluded Asian Games after winning the gold in seven of the previous eight games. China also failed to qualify for this year’s FIBA World Cup after a humiliating rout by Taiwan in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Asia Championship.
China does have a thriving domestic basketball league (Chinese Basketball Association) that’s employed two dozen ex-NBA players over its 20-year existence, including former All-Stars Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, and perhaps the CBA’s most popular icon Stephon Marbury, currently with the Beijing Ducks. But the 20-team league mostly serves as destination for journeyman American players or aging NBA stars looking for one last payday.
Of course, the most revered basketball player in China isn’t Yao Ming, even during his playing days, but Kobe Bryant, whose popularity in China far exceeds that in the U.S. This summer, Bryant made a whirlwind tour during which he was greeted by a mad mob of Chinese fans everywhere, some even weeping at the mere sight of him.
It’s been theorized that the one-child policy and the limited outdoor space in densely populated Chinese cities both helped boost basketball’s growth in China. The CBA estimates that there are 300 million Chinese youth who actively play the sport – the equivalent of the entire population of the U.S.
All that grassroots fervor, however, has not translated into top-end talent, as China’s recent struggles even in Asian competitions can attest. The lack of a developmental pipeline, quality coaching, and general disorganization have all been blamed as the reasons for the China’s on-court malaise, as the search continues for an heir apparent to the 7-foot-6 Yao, who retired after the 2011 season.
“Yao Ming is so important to the Chinese people. When he stepped off the playing court, there was a big vacuum affect. It was like, ‘wow, what is next?’” Terry Rhoads, who runs a Shanghai-based sports marketing agency, told the Sacramento Bee. “Filling Yao’s shoes is an impossible task. When the NBA sits around and contemplates business plans for next 10 years, they are absolutely grinding their teeth over the lack of Chinese players having the right skills.
“The biggest shortfall for China is player development. This country has amazing talent, but its potential isn’t being realized.”
But the lack of a Chinese star hasn’t really affected the NBA’s popularity in China. So in the meantime, the league will just continue pocketing Chinese fans’ money and hoarding their affection.