Nearly four decades ago, the NBA took its first steps on Chinese soil with a visit from the Washington Bullets. The team played exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai in 1979, and, as it turned out, offered a glimpse of the future of basketball in China.
One of the players on the Shanghai team that opposed the Bullets was a center named Yao Zhiyuan, whose son provided a tipping point for explosive NBA growth in China when he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2002 by the Houston Rockets. Yao Ming would become one of the most influential players in the game's history, ultimately earning eight All-Star selections and membership in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The NBA has since grown into a sports juggernaut among Chinese fans, both domestic and abroad.
To wit, the league announced details Wednesday of its sixth annual NBA Chinese New Year Celebration event, revealing commemorative uniforms to be worn by the Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards. Those teams and several others will host activities during the celebration, which runs from Jan. 27 to Feb. 12.
Perhaps the biggest highlight will be the retirement of Yao's No. 11 jersey by the Rockets at halftime of their Feb. 3 game against the Chicago Bulls. Additionally, the league produced a commercial featuring star players Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, James Harden and Jeremy Lin to mark the event, which will feature a record 60 game broadcasts across myriad networks in China.
As the league prepares to observe the Year of the Rooster, it offers an opportunity to survey the current state of the NBA in China.
Basketball was quietly introduced to China in the 1890s by missionaries from the YMCA. But there is nothing modest about the number of people consuming the sport there now. More than 760 million people watched at least one NBA game on television in China last year, according to the league. The NBA has played 22 preseason games in China over the years, and all have been sellouts.
"I chalk up our current business success and popularity to being authentic and genuine with our fans," NBA China CEO David Shoemaker said by phone from Hong Kong. "When we play our games in China, it's very important to our fans that we bring an authentic NBA basketball experience -- the teams, the dance teams, the dunk teams, the video boards and the DJs -- to the point that if you didn't know better, if you were sitting in the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, you might think you were in the Staples Center in Los Angeles."
Shoemaker said the NBA intends to continue staging exhibition games annually in China, but there are no current plans to contest regular-season games there.
"We get asked frequently about whether we have plans to do that, and there are certainly some logistical hurdles to it," Shoemaker said. "But more importantly, I worry more about a regular-season game because it's all business during the regular season. During the preseason, the teams come over and they have such a great attitude to experiencing the culture, to giving back to the community, to participating in fan events and partner events. We get a ton out of it, and the teams get a ton out of it."
Shoemaker leads a staff of more than 100 NBA employees in Beijing and approximately 75 more based in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei. The Canada native joined NBA China in 2011 and has seen the NBA's popularity on social media in China grow from approximately 10 million fans and followers to 120 million in recent years. Today, 30 years after NBA games were first broadcast on China Central Television, fans are also consuming games in the digital space, with an average of 2 million viewers for every game shown on digital platforms in China. More than 400 games will be aired on mobile media there this season. All that said, the league is now aggressively working to connect its audience with the sport of basketball on a grassroots level.
"We have de-emphasized, in the last few years, the importance of growing the popularity of the NBA in China and really put our focus on developing the game of basketball and getting more people to play it," Shoemaker said.
To that end, the league recently announced the launch of NBA training academies in the cities of Jinan, Urumqi and Hangzhou, partnering with provincial sports bureaus to help develop future generations of basketball talent in China. Each facility houses and trains 16 male and 16 female teenage prospects, with a strategy to accelerate their growth by playing elite international opponents. The league subsequently launched similar facilities in Australia, India and Senegal. To hear Shoemaker tell it, therein lies the future of the NBA overseas.
"If I fast-forward five years, the game remains just as popular from a viewership and merchandise standpoint and all the other ways in which we measure the success of our business," Shoemaker said. "But the dramatic change is that people all over the country, particularly youngsters, are playing the game in school, in schoolyards and after school and can't get enough."