October 23, 2012

Beijing Heat, Shanghai Clippers

With a high-profile pre-season game, the NBA continues to find a home in China.

I wrote this feature for SLAM Online, and it was originally published on their website on October 13, 2012.

Beijing is about 7,500 miles away east from Miami and 6,500 miles away west from Los Angeles.

But on this night, the distance doesn’t matter. The capital of China becomes home court to two cities far removed from the consciousness of its people. A buzzing max crowd of nearly 18,000 fans greeted the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers for a pre-season game on Thursday night. It was the continuation of the NBA’s China Games program to bring NBA events to China. But this time, the NBA wholly outdid itself.

Never before had it gifted the fans in China an event so massive. The NBA champions—featuring the world’s reigning champion of everything, LeBron James, there was Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the still-adored Ray Allen—versus the slightly lesser-hyped but still entertaining group of Clippers led by Blake Griffin and the out of action Chris Paul.

In a time when America heads toward its elections and China’s influence on the US economy and jobs becomes a hot topic of debate again, thousands of miles away, the NBA sells America to China in the most entertaining way possible. The Chinese love basketball and they love the NBA, and have been devoting their attention to NBA stars feverishly since the Yao days. Over the past few years (let’s call it the post-Starbury era), the NBA has turned around and reciprocated that attention.

NBA players—locked out or not—have moved to play in China (Marbury’s adventures have been well-documented, and the most recent member of the ‘CBA Club’ has been Tracy McGrady). All of the NBA’s biggest stars—from LeBron to Kobe to Kevin Durant—now consider a visit to the country a must during the offseason. Dwyane Wade recently jumped ship off the Jordan Brand to sign for Li Ning. The NBA’s biggest office out of New York is in Beijing. And official NBA games and events are being held regularly.

But this was bigger than it all. China is a market that the NBA—along with damn near every other company in the world—wants to earn off of. The NBA is just doing a better job of it than most.

The game tipped off at the MasterCard (formerly Wukesong) Center in Beijing, the same arena where several players at the game won Gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. A loud, packed house greeted the two teams as they came out to the floor. And they came out with the works. The mascots and acrobatic troupes from both teams came along to China with the teams, as did the Miami Heat cheerleaders.

This was going to be no ordinary pre-season game. For many of the players and the two teams in question, the two games in China this week can earn them more popularity than a dozen of regular-season games back home. While the preseason is used mostly as an opportunity for squads to get comfortable with each other, get in shape, and learn any new systems, this game was to be no practice run. The fans—starved of NBA action that they so badly crave—were given a show, on and off the court.

The game might have been in Beijing, but it felt very much at home to Miami. The Heat have the ambition and the ingredients to become China’s (and thus Asia’s) favorite team, possibly in an attempt to steal that mantel from the omnipresent Lakers.

The Heat have an official website for China, feature the world’s best player in LeBron, and have two players who have been signed to Chinese shoe companies: Shane Battier (Peak) and most recently, Dwyane Wade (Li Ning). Outside the arena, hawkers on the footpath sold Heat jerseys, t-shirts, hats, mouse-pads, posters, badges, magnets and a whole lotta other accessories with LeBron and Wade’s smiling faces. Some hawkers sold binoculars for the fans who wanted to zoom in to take a closer look at the legends on court from the upper levels.

The biggest star of the night was of course LeBron. LeBron’s Heat jerseys were on the backs of most Chinese fans, but many even showed up in his Team USA gear and hilariously, his Cleveland jerseys, too. Fans roared at every glimpse of the reigning MVP.

And LeBron didn’t disappoint, coming out on fire and hitting his first four shots, a mix of good contested jump-shots and thunderous drives to the basket. Newly crowned as champion and free of the judgmental eyes of the world, LeBron looked especially comfortable in his movement and his decision-making.

Although he may have been suffering from niggling injuries, Wade also played significant minutes. Although he didn’t put up many points, DWade looked extremely explosive running the floor and on the defensive end. That bounce in his step? Yeah, it’s back.

The rest of the Beijing/Miami Heat got fervent support too. Fans cheered for Chris Bosh. They cheered for Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis. They got downright maniacal when the new face, Ray Allen, checked into the game. Although he still looks wrong in a Heat jersey, Mr. Shuttlesworth seemed eerily comfortably in his new role with the Heat, spreading the floor, attacking the basket, and that jump shot was as smooth as it has ever been.

On the other end of the floor, the Clippers sorely missed Chris Paul, who attended the game but didn’t play a single minute recovering from the thumb surgery. Blake Griffin—as expected—was a major draw, and after a stuttering first half, did manage to electrify the crowd with three of four entertaining dunks after halftime.

But most of the time he and the other Clipper bigs looked lost without Paul’s leadership and shot-creation. DeAndre Jordan particularly earned the mockery of the fans as he struggled his way to a 1-10 shooting night from the free-throw line. Caron Butler looked the most confident Clipper on the floor.

It was the rest of the Clippers—a rag tag bunch of ‘where are they nows’—that provided some intriguing moments. The Clips added Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes to their lineup over the offseason, and all of them earned some major burn. They may have struggled to find cohesiveness in this early pre-season game, but could definitely grow together to become one of the more effective bench mobs in the League over the course of the season.

Miami dominated early, taking a 52-35 halftime lead, and finished the game with a 94-80 win. LeBron led with 20 points and Ray Allen added 15 from off the bench. Griffin (19) and Jamal Crawford (16) led the Clippers.

The Heat clearly felt the need to entertain and dominate enough to solidify their fan base in China. But the game was about much more than basketball. It was a delightful onslaught of everything NBA-culture. The Jumbotron, the cheerleaders, the mascots, the hip-hop, the t-shirt toss, the Mexican Wave, the Kiss Cam.

For a brief three hours I was in the MasterCard Arena in Beijing, I felt like I was in any major NBA arena. It was all Americana—all except the lack of good ol’ American concession food, and of course, the Chinese language. The PA announcer pronounced the name of each NBA player in English and then their Chinese pronunciation.

As another gift to its Chinese audience, the NBA brought out some surprise guests. A collection of the greatest players to have ever worn a Heat jersey—Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Glen Rice, Steve Smith and Bruce Bowen—were invited out to the court at halftime. And as a bonus, the NBA’s greatest winner Bill Russell, came out to a deafening cheer, too.

The energy went on way after the final buzzer. NBA fever had hit China big, and this year, it seems set to keep getting bigger. The NBA held a Fan Appreciation Day in Shanghai on Saturday, and on Sunday, the Heat and Clippers will play a second game at the same venue. The same weekend, it was announced officially that the NBA will be opening a basketball center in the city of Tianjin near Beijing, which would include “NBA-style basketball courts, a fitness center, a restaurant and other features.”

The idea of an NBA-branded global basketball league has been bouncing around for quite some time now. Whether or not you believe that this idea, a) makes sense, or b) is even possible, one thing is for sure: The NBA has a massive market for its players, teams, show, the entire product across the world. And China is near the forefront, with hundreds of thousands of consumers in love with a product that exists mostly thousands of miles away from them.

With the regular-season tip-off just a few weeks away, NBA teams like the Heat and the Clippers will be using the next few days to smoothen out the rough hinges and merge together in preparation for the first games that actually matter. They will be back in North America and back to their regular-scheduled programming.

But what was just a low-key exhibition in the NBA books and the AP sport recaps was far more important for the burgeoning NBA market in China. The games in Beijing and Shanghai will further solidify the NBA’s gigantic presence in the world’s most populous country and the type of soft-power diplomacy between the US and China that no amount of political rhetoric can buy.

And even though they were thousands of miles away from their home cities and their headquarters, the Heat, the Clippers and the NBA found themselves in an environment so different to their own and yet, so eager to accept and embrace it. In China, they found another home court.

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