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NBA stirs China’s passion

BEIJING — The first thing you see when passing through baggage claim at the airport here is Starbucks. The next thing is Kentucky Fried Chicken. They are signs of how for decades now China has embraced Western culture, and how the decision for a Communist Party to eagerly welcome a market economy has transformed the lifestyle of generations.

But if Frappuccinos and three-piece meals somewhat define how China wants to be associated with the West, a different American export has captivated the nation’s imagination to mythical levels.

China is crazy about basketball, so much that many here believe playing the game makes you taller, which is too bad the same can’t be said for sitting and typing a column.

"It is important to learn from other countries when they are the best at something," said Wang Jian, a 33-year-old fan from Beijing. "You watch. You learn. You get better as a nation.

"China, you know, has a large population."

Wang might be a king of understatement, but you can’t minimize these numbers: An estimated 300 million play basketball here, or about 22 percent of the inhabitants.

They weren’t all inside Wukesong Indoor Stadium late Sunday night, but you couldn’t tell from a standing-room-only flock of 18,000 that cheered out-of-bounds plays with passion usually reserved for game-winning shots from halfcourt.

You couldn’t tell from the hundreds who didn’t get in but showed up and crammed hallways anyway, from the heated exchanges between security guards and those spectators pushing against barriers hoping the mere desire to see NBA stars — theirs and mostly ours — would prove an insurmountable force.

You couldn’t tell from the policeman who helped restrain the locked-out fans during timeouts, only to have them run into the arena when play resumed.

It wasn’t by accident that Team USA opened its quest for Olympic gold against the host nation. Nor was it a surprise more than a billion people worldwide were expected to watch a game the Americans won 101-70, because they are still far superior at every phase, and the fact that in a country of 1.3 billion, the Chinese still haven’t found anyone who can shoot.

This is a story of one nation’s incredible craving to improve and a sport’s most powerful brand happily accepting the role as adviser with benefits. The NBA generates about $3 billion in annual revenue, and more than 10 percent comes from overseas. The largest contributor: China, which has more than 20,000 stores selling NBA merchandise.

The largest reason: Yao Ming.

Basketball came to China in the 1890s at the hands of American missionaries, but was more a single grain in a large rice bowl until the 7-foot-6-inch Yao sprouted into an NBA force. Now, the Chinese talk of their next generation of stars, and the NBA is smart to capitalize.

What’s not to make a perfect marriage?

China has too big a pool of players to draw from and resources to invest for it to take as long as Europe did in catching up to the NBA on a semi-regular competitive level. So as China becomes more legitimate, the NBA benefits from it.

That is what an agreement called Bridge to China represents, a partnership that would help the league expand its already vast business base here while making stars like Kobe Bryant (who already might be more popular than Yao in these parts) and LeBron James even more glamorous in the eyes of jersey-buying fans. This is what a game such as Sunday’s can do for the relationship.

Pretty much everything.

"A treasure for me," Yao said of facing the Americans on his soil. "Hopefully this will mean more (Chinese) will play the game."

More than 300 million. It’s not impossible. Those small yellow stars on China’s flag aren’t symbolic for a starting five, but it’s getting more and more to that kind of fanatical appeal for basketball. Soccer and table tennis are still more popular, but you get one guess as to what kind of court sits in the middle of The Forbidden City, on the grounds of such a treasured place in Chinese history.

"You know," Chinese coach Jonas Kazlauskas said after Sunday’s defeat, "China shows a lot of love in big games. But when going against NBA (players), you can see every (difference). Those guys are heroes for some of our players. This makes things very difficult.

"To tell the truth, it’s difficult to expect to beat this team at this level with what we have now in China."

It won’t always be that way.

The numbers, and passion, suggest it can only get better. It’s the Western way.

Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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