Capitalism thrives in China as McGrady passes Yao

The spin was classic: If the NBA's top-selling jersey in China isn't Yao Ming's, it must qualify as a huge upset. After all, if Yao can't dominate his own nation in hoops, who can?

As it happens, there is an answer to that question, as follows: The NBA can. And, increasingly, the NBA does.

The news of the week was straight out of the David Stern Guide to Transcending the Dream State: Yao has actually been surpassed in jersey sales in his native country by his own Houston Rockets teammate, Tracy McGrady. It's T-Mac first, Allen Iverson second and Yao third.

Offhand, I can think of at least three things that contributed to this development. The first is that a Yao jersey already hangs in the closet of just about everybody who has ever bought such a thing in China -- sales had to drop off sometime, just on the basis of critical mass being attained. The only way for Yao to regain No. 1 sales status is to switch teams.

Second, McGrady now has visited China twice in two years, both times coming through the experience with good humor and much fanfare.

Third, his apparel contractor, adidas, has marketed McGrady heavily in the country, capitalizing on the goodwill that has arisen from the player's friendly relationship with the cult-like figure that is Yao.

But none of that speaks to the larger picture. The larger picture is that the NBA has been priming the pump for exactly this development, and it goes back years and years. It's great that Yao dominated sales in China for a couple of years, but that was never the league's big plan. Its big plan was to sell everything, to everybody, as soon as China was willing to open the store.

Stern and the Chinese capitalists have been playing ball for years. Or didn't you know that Yao says he learned about basketball by watching NBA telecasts on late-night TV in China ... when he was a kid?

Over the past few years, that commerce game has picked up steam. The NBA has struck contract agreements with more than a dozen local and regional television companies in China. The total: access to 314 million households, and climbing. This is Stern's vision for the greatest emerging consumer power in the world. It isn't about Yao nearly so much as it is about using Yao to market the rest of the product.

Granted, there is nothing that could ever take the place of the Yao phenomenon in terms of galvanizing Chinese interest in the NBA. As one of the reporters who accompanied the Rockets and Kings on their exhibition-game tour of Shanghai and Beijing in 2004, I can tell you that the mania surrounding Yao there was unlike anything I've seen attached to any American sports icon, ever. It felt more like the Beatles than Michael Jordan, put it that way.

It's also impossible to overstate the cultural significance of Yao, raised in Communist China, achieving success and fame in such a specifically individual way. Growing up, Yao understood basketball as another means toward expressing China's solidarity -- athletic excellence meant bringing honor to the country. Now, his excellence is seen as a doorway through which others might someday pass, but it's a different kind of success, almost separate from the notion of Official China.

Stern had always wanted greater interaction with China, but it took a perfect storm of events for it to happen. One, of course, was the gradual Westernization of the country in its commercial (if not philosophical) leanings. Another was technology, the ability to program the NBA effectively there.

And third was Yao -- and it had to be the right person. It couldn't have been just anyone. Wang Zhi-Zhi was actually in the NBA before Yao, but Wang wasn't the player that Yao became, and Yao also has demonstrated -- repeatedly, and quite eloquently -- that he was a young man capable of carrying the weight of a sporting nation on his shoulders. Whatever people make of him as an NBA center, Yao will go down in history as the breakthrough international player of the generation.

He also was the guy Stern had been awaiting for years -- and when he arrived, the NBA was ready to jump on board. Basketball already is ranked as the second-most popular sport in China (behind soccer), and a survey two years ago showed that 75 percent of males aged 15 to 24 considered themselves NBA fans, watching at least one game a week via the Chinese channels.

NBA merchandise, meanwhile, has doubled in sales in China every year for the past several years. Give Yao credit for a chunk of that -- McGrady and Iverson, too. Somewhere in the background, that's David Stern, smiling quietly and counting the change.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.