SHANGHAI — There was an afternoon a dozen years ago when Yao Ming, then-coach Jeff Van Gundy and a few friends were riding in a van here through China’s largest city and marveling at the ubiquitous presence of the 7-foot-6 center. His image could be found on billboards, the side of buses, on restaurant menus, just about anyplace one looked. He was literally the face of his nation as a pitchman and international symbol.
While stopped at a traffic light, Van Gundy asked his young center what might happen if Yao got out of the van and simply walked through a nearby public park.
“Do you me to play for the Rockets this season?” Yao asked with a grin. “Do you want to ever see me again? Because if I start to walk down the street, I might get swallowed up.”
When the Rockets took part in those first NBA Global Games in China back in 2004, it was very much a celebration of the first ever No. 1 NBA draft pick to come out of the world’s most populous nation. A Yao-apalooza, if you will.
Now more than a decade later, Yao is back in his hometown as a retired former player, budding businessman and brand new Hall of Fame inductee, and the NBA has returned for the 10th edition of the Global Games in China as a different animal as well.
“We are in a fantastic place,” said NBA China CEO David Shoemaker. “The game has never been more popular in China. The NBA has never been more popular in China. The business is soaring.
“Last year we had 765 million unique people watch at least one NBA game in China. So if you lined up the 1.4 billion people, one of every two people saw an NBA game. We have 100 million social media followers. Marketing and merchandise business doubles every couple of years. It’s really in a great place.
“Our research says the NBA is the most popular sports league in China. There’s no other one that’s close. We’re not a novelty. We’re an institution.”
During that first trip here by the Rockets, it was all about Yao and the pride he brought China as both a premier athlete and a cultural bridge across the Pacific Ocean. Those were the days still leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and what was going to be China’s official 21st century coming out party after nearly 30 years of a gradual political and commercial opening.
The 2008 Olympics came off virtually without a hitch, the hosts racked up an impressive slew of medals and today there isn’t an international business in any corner of the world that isn’t interested in pushing deeper into China. The Rockets now, as then, are seeking to be at the forward edge.
“The Rockets are China’s NBA team,” said Du Gong, a reporter for the nation’s largest Internet portal Tencent. “It began with Yao Ming. But even in the years after he is no longer playing, this is the team that more Chinese fans know and follow. They are loyal to the team that made the first of their countryman the No. 1 choice.”
The China connection is also furthered by the Rockets’ partnerships with roughly a half-dozen companies based in China and constantly working to add more.
“This has always been a long-range goal of (team owner) Leslie (Alexander), to be not just the most popular team in China, but to be the most popular team in the world,” said Rockets’ CEO Tad Brown. “Make no mistake, the Rockets did not make Yao the No. 1 pick because of the market. He was the No. 1 pick because we believed he could be the best center in the world and he became that. But Yao did open doors that we are happy to continue to walk through.”
“By playing in the league for 10 years, by playing at the level he played, by being a Hall of Fame type player, he created a whole new generation of Chinese fans that have followed the league closely and now they’re fans of all 30 teams and all the superstars in the league.
“It’s a funny market to say you’re beyond where you thought it would be. In some measures we’re surpassing expectations, but we continue to reset our expectations to where we’re never satisfied. This market is so dynamic, the technology is ever changing, the demands are ever changing that we’re constantly striving to get ahead of it.”
The NBA’s outreach into China has taken many forms:
* NBA and Chinese Basketball Association joint program has trained nearly 1700 coaches since 2009.
* NBA China and Yao Ming announced a partnership in 2012 to develop youth basketball and conduct community outreach programs in China.
* The CBA Dongguan Basketball School (opened in November 2011) is a year-round NBA training center for elite players ages 12-17 that has trained and worked with more than 9,000 players and coaches.
* NBA China pledged $1.6 million in a joint effort with the Chinese Ministry of Education to build and refurbish public basketball courts across China.
* NBA China, Beijing Municipal Education Commission and Beijing Municipal Bureau of Sports launched the first Jr. NBA Basketball League in China.
At one point during Yao’s career, the Rockets had as many as eight different players on the team with endorsement contracts for Chinese shoe companies. China has become a regular must-do summertime stop for many of the big names who are greeted and treated like rock stars. The Rockets’ James Harden is one of the top draws and still marvels at the reception he gets.
“These fans know the NBA, know all of the players and have a real passion for the whole league,” Harden said. “But I do think it is special to come here as a Rocket because of the history between the team and China.”
That history is why the Rockets aren’t found on Global Games itineraries making stops in Europe or South America. China is the Rockets home away from home.
“I have said in the past and in my Hall of Fame speech that I will always have special ties to the Rockets team and to the people of Houston for taking me into their home and making me feel welcome,” Yao said. “And as I see the NBA continue to grow more each year here in China, it makes me happy to know that my American home and American team is responsible for making much of this happen.”
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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