NBA looks to con­tinue growth in China

Acad­e­mies work to de­velop new tal­ent

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BASKETBALL - Sam Amick The War­riors’ Damian Jones takes a selfie with a fan around Hong Kong as part of the Global Games. Rick Welts,

SHENZHEN, CHINA There was a time when the prospect of the NBA reach­ing these kinds of heights seemed im­pos­si­ble.

So as Golden State War­riors Pres­i­dent Rick Welts looked out over the South China Sea from the top of a Ritz-Carl­ton ho­tel in Hong Kong, en­joy­ing the view along with the rest of the de­fend­ing champs dur­ing a week-long visit to China, he couldn’t help but re­flect on those days. It had been a quar­ter cen­tury since the global growth started with a lit­tle NBA of­fice in this pic­turesque city of 7.3 mil­lion, and no one — Welts in­cluded — saw this com­ing.

“We’re on the 118th floor of the tallest build­ing in Hong Kong, and (War­riors for­ward) Dray­mond (Green) is over there tak­ing pic­tures, and (point guard) Shaun (Liv­ingston) and his wife and baby are tak­ing pic­tures, and (cen­ter) Zaza (Pachu­lia) is kind of tak­ing it all in,” said Welts, the 62year-old who played a piv­otal role in the league’s growth dur­ing a 17year run as a league ex­ec­u­tive un­der former com­mis­sioner David Stern. “You look around, and just say, like, ‘This is the NBA.’ It’s re­mark­able to see where this all is to­day.

“We had set up our of­fice for NBA Asia in Hong Kong, and we had … one of­fice with three peo­ple try­ing to run Asia, right? So that in­cluded China, Ja­pan and ev­ery­where else. It was the Wild West. We’re try­ing to take these calls with the time dif­fer­ence from New York, just try­ing to fig­ure out how to get of­fice fur­ni­ture, (and) how to make sure some­body had health care in Hong Kong was a big enough chal­lenge. It was re­ally as mom and pop a start-up as there ever could be.”

In 1992, about the time Welts was as­sum­ing the third-in-com­mand po­si­tion of ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and a young at­tor­ney named Adam Sil­ver was start­ing his rise to the com­mis­sioner’s of­fice, the NBA opened its first Asia of­fice in Hong Kong with the hopes of reach­ing an un­tapped mar­ket. Stern and Welts had cel­e­brated in the then-com­mis­sioner’s of­fice in the mid1980s when they got word that games would be played on a three-week tape de­lay in Italy. The fo­cus was on Europe at the time, and later Ja­pan, be­fore China be­came a pri­or­ity.

As Sil­ver, now the com­mis­sioner, told USA TO­DAY Sports over the phone, the NBA had more stay­ing power in China than some en­vi­sioned.

“Al­though some peo­ple pre­dicted that when Yao re­tired that we would lose pop­u­lar­ity, in fact post Yao Ming we’re even more pop­u­lar than when he was play­ing,” said Sil­ver, who is ex­pected to be in Shang­hai for Sun­day’s tip-off. “We’ve been em­braced by the Chi­nese govern­ment, and the peo­ple — I be­lieve — in large part be­cause of the val­ues of our game. Those val­ues, like re­spect and team­work and hard work, (mean) the game it­self res­onates with the peo­ple of China.” Now, there’s this: uThe league saw a spike in Chi­nese in­ter­est dur­ing the Yao Ming era, con­tin­ued to grow here since his re­tire­ment in 2011 and now has of­fices in Bei­jing, Shang­hai and Taipei.

uMore than 700 mil­lion view­ers watched NBA bas­ket­ball on tele­vi­sion in China last sea­son, with games also streamed by me­dia part­ners such as CCTV, BesTV and TenCent. Bas­ket­ball, played by ap­prox­i­mately 300 mil­lion peo­ple here, is the No. 1 team sport in China. The NBA is the most pop­u­lar sports league on so­cial me­dia in China, with more than 136 mil­lion fol­low­ers.

uWith this week’s pair of pre­sea­son games be­tween the War­riors and Min­nesota Tim­ber­wolves in Shenzhen and Shang­hai sell­ing out in an hour, the NBA has now hosted sell­outs in all 24 of its games in China. The Wash­ing­ton Bul­lets, in late Au­gust 1979, were the first team to play in China. Four­teen teams have played here in all.

“Our best days are def­i­nitely ahead of us,” Sil­ver said. “I think the rea­son for that is that while the growth has con­tin­ued … when ad­di­tional Chi­nese play­ers en­ter the league, and espe­cially top­notch play­ers, I think we’re go­ing to have (an­other) growth spurt in China.”

That next fron­tier, as Sil­ver ad­mits, has proved frus­trat­ing.

While there will never be an­other Yao, the dearth of NBA-cal­iber tal­ent com­ing from this coun­try of nearly 1.4 bil­lion peo­ple is still star­tling.

Hous­ton Rock­ets rookie Zhou Qi, a 21-year-old who was taken 43rd over­all in 2016 and signed a mul­ti­year deal in early July, is the only cur­rent player from China.

The last Chi­nese player to show any real prom­ise was Yi Jian­lian, the 29-year-old who played for four teams from 2007 to 2012 and is now play­ing with the Guang­dong Tigers of the Chi­nese Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion.

The NBA seems to be do­ing all it can.

Last year, it opened three NBA Acad­e­mies in China that are geared to­ward de­vel­op­ing the top male and fe­male prospects. League of­fi­cials worked with the Chi­nese Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion on a bas­ket­ball cur­ricu­lum that in­cor­po­rates fit­ness and hoops and will reach 2,000 schools this year.

The first NBA Bas­ket­ball School of China is open­ing in 2019. Yao, who owns the Shang­hai Sharks of the CBA, re­mains in­te­gral to this push.

“Our re­sponse to our dis­ap­point­ment, and the lack of top­tier de­vel­op­ment, was that rather than sit on our hands and be­moan

War­riors pres­i­dent, on the NBA’s growth in China

it, let’s work with the CBA and play an ac­tive role (in de­vel­op­ment),” Sil­ver said.

“With Yao Ming, and the acad­e­mies now through­out China to work with young tal­ent, I be­lieve it is a num­bers game, that given the amount of bas­ket­ball be­ing played by young top bas­ket­ball play­ers in China ... and the fo­cus they bring to bear, I’m con­fi­dent we’ll see re­sults.”

Yet even if that doesn’t tran­spire, Sil­ver & Co. have al­ready seen more than they imag­ined.

“The em­brace this coun­try has given the NBA, I think, is so far be­yond what any­body could have an­tic­i­pated when we set out on this ad­ven­ture,” Welts said.

“The way the sport has res­onated here is just dif­fer­ent than any­where else out­side of North Amer­ica and the world.”

NOAH GRA­HAM, NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

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