October 7, 2014

Most Wanted

Citizens of China are playing - and watching - basketball in record numbers, so it only makes sense and that the NBA and sneaker brands send star players over there all summer long to feed the growing demand.

I wrote this feature for SLAM Magazine's KICKS Issue and it was originally published in KICKS # 17 - 2014

“Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!”

The chant fanned out like fire-flames amidst the 17,000 NBA devotees packed inside the MasterCard Center in Beijing, China, watching the Lakers play the Warriors in the first of their two pre-season exhibition games in the country last October. Fans had flocked the arena, presumably with allegiances to both teams. When it came down to it, though, attendees in every colour jersey started chanting Kobe’s name.

Thing is, Bryant wasn’t in the game at the time. Matter of fact, he wasn’t dressed for the game at all. The future Hall of a Famer was on the bench in a business suit, still nursing his healing Achilles tendon. The chants continued nevertheless.

Outside the arena, following a 100-95 Warriors win, Beijing briefly turned into bizzaro version of Los Angeles. Kobe jerseys, T-shirts, hats, mouse pads, iPhone covers, bags, scarves, and other merchandise. The subways, especially, were full of fans of all ages in Kobe jerseys. The NBA may have held the game at a neutral venue, but with the Black Mamba on hand, the Lakers were always going to be the home team.

The love wasn’t a surprise for Bryant; he has been to China quite a few times over the past decade. In fact, so have the majority of the League’s biggest names. Every yaer, between the summer and late fall, apparel and sneaker companies send their stars on marketing runs to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Shenzhen, and other more remote Chinese locations.

Over the past few years two years alone, the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Jeremy Lin, Rajon Rondo, Chandler Parsons and several other players, including Bryant, have seen the word CHINA stamped on their passport thanks, in part, to their sneaker affiliations.

“China is really our number two market,” said Yuron White, the VP/General Manager for Greater China, in a conversation with SLAM, “China has shown love to basketball and greeted NBA fans like local heroes, which is why it has made sense for us to keep bringing NBA players to the country.”

“The sport is growing in China,” adds All Star Damian Lillard, who was part of adidas’ fantastic foursome of point guards – along with John Wall, Jrue Holiday, and Ricky Rubio – to visit China last summer. “It’s a great opportunity for us to come over here and experience how passionate the fans here are. They are huge fans of us but they don’t have access to us the way the people in America do. For us to come over here, it’s an experience for us and for them. I see people wearing my jersey, or knowing my first name. It’s just mind-blowing.”

China, of course, has a long and illustrious history with basketball, which reached its apex of sorts with Yao Mong’s remarkable stay in the NBA from 2002-11. The mania surrounding Yao only boosted a growing love of the game in the country. Nowadays, the sport is played by hundreds of millions across the world’s largest population, and the CBA – China’s own professional basketball league – will kick off its 19th season this year.

But most of the real interest lies in the NBA. NBA China sources say that regular season NBA games, which air early in the morning hours, rate way better than CBA games, which air during the primetime. In China, there are NBA fans in every nook and corner, in every high-end shopping mall and every local hutong.

During the season, starts like Bryant and Lillard help push the League in China. In the summer, naturally, they come to promote their own individual brands.

“I think that the growing interest of the game [in China] is great,” said Jeremy Lin, during his visit with adidas recently, “It’s great for basketball, and it’s great for the country as well. Basketball is such a fun sport and now it’s cool to see how much China has really adopted the game.”

With China’s summertime NBA excesses becoming a larger and more competitive field every year, the promotional approaches have taken on more and more creative forms, from Chris Paul ‘hand-delivering’ the new Jordan CP3.VIIs, as he walked through the old streets of Beijing or LeBron James and Kobe Bryant working with the Nike RISE campaign to help train selected Chinese youth throughout the country.

Meanwhile, adidas turned their store in Beijing’s Sanlitun branch – the biggest adi store in the world – into a Derrick Rose shrine this past year. Even though the former MVP was out of action for most of the season, Rose made a special trip last year to Beijing as part of his Asia tour, and interacted with fans, giving away pairs of the D Rose 773 II shoes and played table-tennis with the media and fans in the city.

While the big names like Nike, Jordan, or adidas boast their international credentials, bringing the West to the East, the East has their rising stars, too. Companies like Peak and Anta from China are slowly gaining clout, and well-known NBA names like Kevin Garnett, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, and more have committed to the Chinese brands.

The biggest trail-blazer in this respect has been Dwyane Wade and his relationship with Li Ning. In 2012, Wade became the biggest NBA superstar to join the Li Ning roster, leaving behind his previous American shoe deal for the Asian stalwart.

Sneakers aside, China has also become a hot pre-season destination, as large NBA entourage led by two teams, now head eastward every season to take part in the “China Games,” back-to-back matchups in Beijing and Shanghai between two teams. The Miami Heat, L.A. Clippers, Lakers, and Warriors have played in these games in China over the last two years, and this preseason, the Brooklyn Nets and the Sacramento Kings will make the long flight.

These games continue to be greeted with Playoff fervour – just ask the Lakers and the Warriors. But no matter how big other NBA names get worldwide, Kobe continues to garner China’s love like no other. After all, he has been coming annually every summer for almost a decade. The Chinese like to adopt catchy English nicknames, and of course, ‘Kobe’ is among the most popular ones. Grown men have cried in his presence. There is nothing but love.

And every offseason, Kobe, just like so many of the other top players in the League, returns to China to receive love and give some back. While the rest of the NBA takes a break, the summertime becomes the Playoffs in the NBA’s Far-Eastern Conference.

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