It's the ultimate juxtaposition of China: inside the glitzy MasterCard center in Beijing - the 18,000 seating arena which was host to the 2008 Olympics basketball tournament - are some of the biggest names in the basketball world. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is around. The Sacramento Kings' billionaire owner (and India-born) Vivek Ranadive is in attendance. Former hoops legends like Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming, Vlade Divac, Chris Mullin, Peja Stojakovic and more make special appearances. Former and future NBA All Stars like Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and DeMarcus Cousins are on the rosters. Everything from the cheerleaders and the mascots to the in-arena music and the kiss-cam feels imported.
Yet, the event rarely loses it's distinct and refreshing sense of Chinese-ness. The chants of 'Brook-lyn' come accompanied by creative fan chants in Mandarin. Old 'Lao Ren' dance along to traditional Chinese music. Outside the arena, the 'unofficial' ticket sellers swarm you as you make your way in and the counterfeit Nets and Kings jerseys sell quicker than the originals inside. With the Sacramento Kings and the Brooklyn Nets playing pre-season games in Shanghai and Beijing, the NBA once again came to China this off-season. And while the Nets swept the 2014 China Games tour 2-0, it was the passion for the game of the Chinese fans that was the real winner.
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It's become the NBA's annual ritual now, ever since the Kings were here China 10 years ago for the country's first exhibition game against Yao Ming's Houston Rockets in 2004. The NBA China Games have been getting bigger and better every year, and the tried-and-tested format brings two teams every October for back-to-back pre-season games in Beijing and Shanghai. In between, the players, teams, and coaches also manage to squeeze in cultural experiences and charity 'NBA Cares' events.
This year, the Nets won the first game in Shanghai in a close contest, 97-95. They came to Beijing next, and over two days, held open practices, a charity event, and finally, the big game. I was present for the practices to catch some of the players for quick interviews and was able to attend the game on Wednesday, October 15th to see the two teams in action.
Practice and Media Availability - October 14
The Nets took the court first, and by the time the media was allowed in, we caught up practicing some half-court sets, led by point guard Deron Williams. After several indifferent years since his departure from the Jazz, Williams is looking ahead at this season with more optimistic eyes, and his play in China will surely be encouraging to new Head Coach Lionel Hollins. Meanwhile, as he enters his 19th NBA season, Kevin Garnett may have slowed down in his speed but showed no speed-bumps in his passion and intensity for the game. Some of the young players on the Nets side along with Sacramento Kings' legends Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac held an NBA Cares clinic after the first practice. The Kings' squad came in next to prepare for the game next. The Kings' roster included Canadian big man Sim Bhullar, the first player of Indian-descent signed into the league. I will be posting a longer Q&A with Bhullar on the blog over the next few days.
Here are a few soundbites from the players after practice:
Brook Lopez - Nets
LoadingToo many international basketball legends in one picture #VladeDivac #AndreiKirilenko #PejaStojakovic #SacramentoKings #BrooklynNets #NBAChinaGames #Beijing
"I've just been rehabbing and getting ready [to bounce back from last year's injury]. I'm very excited for the season to start and thankfully it's finally upon us."
"There's always an adjustment with a new coach. It's something we've been through before. But Lionel knows so much about the game, and there's a mature, intelligent group of assistants as well to help make the transition relatively easy for all of us."
"I've seen a lot of different things [in the new teammates]. I think the most important thing is that this is an unselfish group, has a high basketball IQ, plays hard on the floor, and knows what it takes to win."
Andrei Kirilenko - Nets
"It's gonna be the 13th or 14th season for me in the NBA. Time flies! Every preparation is a little bit different - this year we came to China. It's a great experience here. We have a chance to really see our Chinese fans. We got about two more weeks now and I think we'll be ready for the season."
"My offseason was pretty good. I spent a lot of time with my family and of course working out by myself. Working out without basketball. No international play this offseason - I'm done with that. Getting older! In the middle of August I came back to New York and spent a month and a half with the team's trainer working out for the season."
LoadingBoogie! #BoogieInBeijing #DeMarcusCousins #Beijing #SacramentoKings #NBAChinaGames
"I think we have a capable team. It's all on us right now - how well can we find the connection during the season because we got a new coach. We got a new system. I'm familiar with the system but there are a lot of things more to work on."
"Our season's goals are definitely the playoffs. Last year we made the playoffs and lost in the second round. But I think we can play better than that. Our goal is to be in the playoffs and play as well as we can."
Kevin Garnett - Nets
"The fact this this (basketball) is my job is a plus. Everyday I get to come and hoop and play with great guys and be around cool people. This is like a fantasy for me. As long as I'm able to play and as long as I'm able to contribute to a team, then I'll play."
Mason Plumlee - Nets
"It was a great offseason. I had a lot of fun in the Summer League and the FIBA World Cup. But now, it's a new team, new staff. I'm getting adjusted. Just starting fresh. I had a great experience but you have to set that aside and move forward now."
LoadingChecking in live from MasterCard Center in Beijing before tip off between Brooklyn Nets & Sacramento Kings #NBAChinaGames #MasterCardCenter #Beijing #China #SacramentoKings #BrooklynNets
"The FIBA tournament was a different style of game. You have to take advantage of it in different ways. Setting better screens, playing more team ball, so that's a good thing to take back with you to your franchise."
"There will be more asked of me [with the Nets this season]. I'm looking forward to that. I think I'll play more minutes. And then I think I'll have more opportunities offensively. So those are the things I should prepare for."
[On fans expecting a bigger scoring output from him]. "Yes, and more rebounding. Everything should be up one level."
Derrick Williams - Kings
"As of right now, Coach [Mike Malone] wants me to be aggressive and be one of the spark-plugs on this team. He wants me to come off the bench right now and score the ball. My goal for this season is to try and win the Most Improved Player award. I believe I can actually win that."
"We have a lot of different ways of playing that Coach wants me to play. When we play small-ball, he wants me to use my speed and quickness against forwards. Even when we go big, with a lineup of myself, Rudy [Gay], Cuz [DeMarcus Cousins], JT [Jason Thompson], we can all interchange 2-3-4. It'll be hard to guard when you have three or four guys who are 6-8/6-9 on the floor. Not so many teams have guys that can guard us like that."
LoadingThe Brooklyn Nets get hyped prior to tip off in Beijing #BrooklynNets #Beijing #NBAChinaGames #SacramentoKings #China
"I'm from right outside of Los Angeles. It's always good to be home and play against the Clippers and Lakers. I have a lot of family that can come to the games. It's always good to have support from your family and friends."
Brooklyn Nets vs. Sacramento Kings - October 15
Despite all the bigger names on the sidelines of each roster, the result of the game eventually came down to the contributions of both teams' bench mobs, all of whom were given the exposure they needed in the preseason to raise their confidence level for the game. Kevin Garnett and DeMarcus Cousins - the two most anticipated names for the fans in Beijing - both earned DNP-CDs in the game and watched as hype-men from the bench. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to see Sim Bhullar in action for the Kings either: Coach Malone had the team playing a faster offense all game without Cousins and the slow, half-court style pace of Bhullar earned no minutes either.
Garnett was by far the most-loved player on court, and fans chanted his name at every timeout or every possibility of a substitution. Alas! Coach Lionel Hollins didn't grant the wishes of the good people of Beijing, and Garnett never checked into the game. KG's fan-following here is quite remarkable: his was clearly the most popular jersey in attendance, and his shoe deal with Chinese company ANTA has see him return to China often over the last few years.
The Nets heavily relied on their European starting duo of the Bosnian Mirza Teletovic and the Croatian rookie Bojan Bogdanovic. Mirza and Bojan put up a ball-moving clinic, creating offense with flair and efficiency all game. Teletovic had a game-high 22 points.
Derrick Williams of the Kings had stated his Most Improved Player desires a day earlier, but early foul trouble kept limited him to just 18 minutes and 10 points in the game.
LoadingBig Shaq in the building #Shaq #SacramentoKings #NBAChinaGames #Beijing #China
Between the likes of Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, Mason Plumlee, Teletovic, Bogdanovic, Jarret Jack, and Sergey Kasarev, the Nets have a lot of depth of average to above-average players. But unless Lopez, Johnson, or Williams take a superstar turn, the depth alone might not be enough to help them from improving on last year's second-round exit.
Quick Kevin Garnett tangent: KG fist-bumps everyone, including every last guy on the bench, the coaching staff, the referees before the game, and even the towel boys and ball boys.
During a timeout, Beijing honours Sacramento Kings legends Mitch Richmond, Vlade Divac, and Peja Stojakovic. Shaquille O'Neal sat on the sidelines and earned numerous cheers, as did Kings' adviser and former NBA legend Chris Mullin. China's greatest ever star Yao Ming was in attendance too.
For the Kings, Rudy Gay seemed to be the most impressive and aggressive player, finishing with 21 points, seven rebounds, and five assists, and showcasing a incredibly impressive mid-range shot all night.
Deron Williams hates the ankles of all opposing players. He particularly tortured Ramon Sessions with four straight crossovers in the game. Williams drew quite a few 'aahs' and 'oohs' for his antics all night.
Loading1st half action from Beijing between the Nets & the Kings #SacramentoKings #BrooklynNets #NBAChinaGames #Beijing
The Nets staged a second half comeback and took a late lead in the game, but a clutch three-pointer by Omar Casspi tied the score at 112 all with 10 seconds left in regulation, and the game soon headed to overtime. Brooklyn took control of the extra period, outscoring Sacramento 17-5 and finishing with a 129-117 win.
Both teams have already flown out of China now, and although this was 'only' the preseason and the stats or records don't matter, trips like these end up having a far more intangible cultural influence. The league's biggest international fanbase gets another chance to see some of the league's top players - as well as many up-and-coming stars up close and personal. Plus, for the team themselves, there is no better opportunity to bond than a long road trip: with both squads ambitious to make a steady improvement for the coming season, the China trip would have served as a great cauldron for better team chemistry.
Next year, a couple more teams will be back, with glitz and glamour and high-quality NBA action. But as always, China will remain true to its character, and it is that distinct character which will offer a tidbit in shaping the evolving face of the NBA, too.