Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers in China to play exhibition matches
NBA is still hugely popular among China's basketball-mad population
The professional U.S. league has more than 50 million followers on Weibo
China's own pro league has long contributed players to the NBA
Editor’s Note: “Jaime’s China” is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine’s Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).
Miami Heat superstar LeBron James on Thursday led the reigning NBA champions into the first of two pre-season matches staged in China against the Los Angeles Clippers.
He lived up to the considerable hype that surrounds him.
Just a few minutes into the game, James made five straight points, punctuated by a big dunk, to the delight of the thousands of Chinese fans who packed the arena in Beijing chanting “MVP, MVP!”
The man dubbed by many as the world’s top player notched 20 points, as the Heat beat the Clippers 94-80.
The two teams will play again on Sunday in Shanghai.
Local fans here were treated to an NBA-style mix of basketball and entertainment, featuring cheerleaders, mascots and DJs egging the crowds to applaud and do “the wave.”
James is well-known in China for being part of the Team USA that won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Basketball-mad Chinese fans watch him regularly in NBA games televised by local sports channels here.
In an exclusive interview with Talk Asia, scheduled to air on CNN soon, James noted the Chinese love for the game. “Here in China they haven’t seen the game up close and personal the way we have in the States,” he said.
“They’re always excited about the game, no matter where it’s played, no matter how it’s played, what level it’s played at and you can have a great deal of respect for that.
“This is my ninth time in this country and every city I’ve been to has welcomed me with open arms,” he added. “Either playing a game of basketball, teaching or inspiring the game of basketball, there’s been some great opportunities for me and there have been some great times with the kids here who love the game of basketball.”
He then credited Chinese former NBA star Yao Ming as a role model.
“That’s the most inspiring thing,” James said. “Not only was Yao in their backyard, he could also really play the game at a high level so it definitely helps a lot of kids as far as saying ‘I can do this and I can do it at a high level.’”
The NBA is one of the most followed sports leagues in China – its account even has 52 million followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social network site.
James was joined on court Thursday by teammate and fellow superstar, Dwayne Wade, who has been recovering from off-season knee surgery, but played for several minutes even though it was only an exhibition game.
Wade even wore a pair of Li-Ning sneakers, just days after signing an endorsement deal with Chinese sportswear company of the same name. The Beijing-based company is giving the Miami star his own line of shoes.
The Heat point guard becomes the biggest NBA name to endorse the Li-Ning brand since his former Miami teammate Shaquille O’Neal.
But he’s not the only NBA star to endorse Chinese products.
Heat forward Shane Battier has endorsed Chinese sneakers brand Peak since 2006.
On the playing front, there has long been a well-established connection between the NBA and the China Basketball Association (CBA), the local professional league founded in 1995.
Several Chinese players, such as Yao, played in the CBA before moving on to the NBA.
In 2011, the NBA and CBA launched a basketball academy to help train more coaches and players.
During the NBA lockdown last year, caused by dispute between NBA players and owners, several stars, including JR Smith and Wilson Chandler, played for Chinese teams in the CBA.
China has also emerged as alternative destination for former NBA stars in the twilight of their career.
Tracy McGrady, 33, has reportedly signed a one-year deal to play this season with CBA side, Qingdao.
The former All-Star, who has played with several NBA teams including the Houston Rockets, finished last season with the Atlanta Hawks. His long-time team up with now retired Houston Rockets center Yao made McGrady a popular figure in China.
Qingdao has never made it to the CBA finals.
His appearance in the CBA is expected to attract more fans to domestic games.
“I am happy for him,” James said. “It will be good for the game.” James says he follows the CBA and said the league is “very good and growing big.”
With no Chinese stars currently plying their trade in the NBA, there’s a huge opportunity for the country’s homegrown stars to show the world what they’re missing.