TO WATCH theNBA-inflected summitry of the United States' 101--70 victory over China onSunday night—which LeBron James of the U.S. predicted, probably accurately,would be "the most watched [basketball] game in the history of theworld"—was to be humbled by the sport's path in the Middle Kingdom sinceYMCA missionaries introduced it in 1895. Follow the bouncing ball: through themid-century, when the People's Liberation Army adopted the game for itsbarracks; into the Cultural Revolution, when coaches called national team"struggle" meetings to denounce any player who scored too many points;to the mid-1990s, when the Chinese Basketball Association still refused to keepindividual statistics and when China Central TV basketball commentator XuJicheng, upon first meeting David Stern, told the NBA commissioner that Chinacould be the league's second-biggest market.
This is an article from the Aug. 18, 2008 issue
"It should bethe first," Stern replied.
Like a MadisonAvenue Mao, Stern traffics in five- and 10-year plans. At the dawn of the '90sthe NBA and its international counterpart, FIBA, risked turning Olympicbasketball into an uncompetitive joke by throwing it open to the pros. A decadelater no one was laughing. Now, with Yao Ming having established himself as theNBA's first Chinese impact player, the U.S. and China staged that mostextraordinary of sporting events, one with cheers all around. In a tapestry ofindividual highlights, the Americans delivered most of them. China stayed closeearly by sinking three-pointers, but U.S. defensive pressure led to fatigue andmissed threes, many of which the Americans turned into breakaway dunks. Still,the game wasn't an irredeemable mismatch. Yao rejected Kobe Bryant on a driveto the basket in the first half. Yi Jianlian of the New Jersey Nets tap-dunkedover Dwight Howard in the second. And commerce lurked in the implications ofboth plays.
As part of alarger initiative to promote healthy lifestyles, the Chinese government built60,000 outdoor basketball courts last year and wants to lay down another700,000 over the next decade so that every village has one. In the southernprovince of Guangxi, 20,000 teams (not people, teams) took part in the mostrecent provincial tournament. On Saturday morning at the five Dongdan outdoorcourts in central Beijing, you could count jerseys of seven NBA players—Bryant,Gilbert Arenas, Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, DwyaneWade—and not a single shirt from the Chinese national team. NBA non-Americansenjoy just as enthusiastic a following: Last week two Chinese women beachvolleyball players went into full squeal after spotting Andrei Kirilenko ofRussia (or more relevantly, the Utah Jazz) getting a haircut in the OlympicVillage. Kirilenko, Yao (Houston Rockets), Germany's Dirk Nowitzki (DallasMavericks), Argentina's Manu Ginobili (San Antonio Spurs) and Lithuania'sSarunas Jasikevicius (formerly of the Indiana Pacers and the Golden StateWarriors) served as flag-bearers during the opening ceremonies, providinganother measure of the NBA's global reach and rank, even as the game is stillpulling out of its funk at home.
No NBA personalityis more popular in China than Bryant, a.k.a. Xiao Fei Xia, or Little FlyingWarrior. In a pre-Games exhibition in Shanghai against Russia on Aug. 3, fansbought up the entire supply of his souvenir USA jersey between the time thedoors opened and tip-off, after which they serenaded him with chants of"M-V-P!" Enter Bryant's name in the Chinese search engine Baidu, andmore than 300,000 Web pages pop up. "It's really hard to choose whom tocheer for," says Li Dalei, who was sporting an I LOVE KOBE T-shirt at theDongdan courts on Saturday. "I also like Spain, because Pau Gasol is Kobe's[Los Angeles Lakers] teammate."
The great Xiao Danof the Red Oxen touched off China's fascination with the NBA, but it was Yao,the first overall pick in 2002, who made it patriotically acceptable for casualChinese to follow the league. "They knew the NBA was something reallygood," says Xia. "But with Yao they learned that we have the Number 1pick, someone who's supposed to be one of the best centers in history. And theyknow he's a great young man who says and does good things. They can tell theirchildren, 'Behave like Yao.'"
THE NBA is poisedto exploit the Beijing Games with a fresh push in China this fall. Earlier thisyear Hong Kong businessman Li Ka-shing joined ESPN and three other parties ininvesting $253 million for an 11% stake in NBA China, the first of the NBA'smany global consulates to become a business enterprise in its own right. Plansinclude staging clinics and camps to improve and promote the sport; operatingthe basketball venue in Beijing and arenas in other Chinese cities after theOlympics; adding media content beyond the half-dozen NBA games already telecasteach week; and opening as many as 1,000 retail stores around the country. Sternhas said he'd like to launch a league, too, but would only do so with thecooperation of the CBA—a good thing, as there is already grumbling among theChinese hoops bureaucracy about the Americans' aggressiveness. "We can bevery successful [even] without a league [of our own]," says Tim Chen, whotook over as CEO of NBA China last October after leading Microsoft's efforts inthe People's Republic. "But with a league—if we can figure out a way—we canbe even better."
The NBA's globaleffort hangs in part on Team USA's ability to wipe away memories of its chippy,boo-inducing performance in Athens. On Sunday the U.S. made an auspiciousstart. "We felt if we could win the crowd over, we were doing somethingright," guard Jason Kidd said afterward. Added forward Carlos Boozer,"I thought the crowd was going to be more one-sided." With a teamschooled in the rudiments of international relations, the U.S. might aspire inbasketball to be what Brazil is in soccer: beyond its borders, everyone'ssecond-favorite team.
On Saturday athalftime of the U.S. women's game with the Czech Republic, the men touched offa frenzy when they filed into their seats. With cameras and phones aloft, fanspressed against a cordon of volunteers, who themselves were snapping pictures.As U.S. players stood in turn to wave to the crowd, they brought cascades ofcheers. Not 20 yards away sat President George W. Bush, virtually unnoticed.Watching Bush watch the Redeem Team, which has made humility and publicdiplomacy its watchwords, it was hard not to wonder if he was belatedly takingnotes on the deployment of American soft power.
U.S. coach MikeKrzyzew-ski is a fan of the President's father, a former ambassador to China,and last week Coach K did his best to make like the man he calls "41.""If all we do is play basketball, we're not making use of all that the gamecan give," he said, like some latter-day Ping-Pong diplomat. "Sure youwant to win, but what if the game opens some doors that haven't been knockedon? And if a billion people are watching, what message do you want to send?That we're 1--0 in pool play?"
Krzyzewski and hisplayers wound up sending multiple messages: that you can dunk on a team morethan a dozen times and still respect it. That you can raise your arms to thecrowd, palms open, in thanks after a game. And that, from now on, anybasketball coach tempted to loosen up a locker room by saying, "A billionpeople in China don't give a damn," will have to think again.