'Unknown' guard goes global in China

I cover college basketball for a living, and until Monday night, I had never heard of Saint Louis guard Jake Barnett. There are good reasons for this. As a sophomore, Barnett was the 10th man in the SLU rotation last season. He scored all of 20 points in 17 appearances in 2012. He was, essentially, a benchwarmer.

Just don’t tell the basketball fans in China.

According to this fun little story by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Tom Timmerman, Barnett spent three weeks on a basketball goodwill tour through China, playing for a team called the USA Eagles (USA! USA!) alongside the likes of former Ohio State sharpshooter Jon Diebler and just-graduated Vandy guard Brad Tinsley. I would watch that team play, but I’m desperately starved for basketball. Most American fans wouldn’t even blink an eye. But the Chinese fans? They treated Barnett and Co. like rock gods. From the story:

“The cool thing about it was, they love basketball,” Barnett said. "After every game, little kids would come up to you with nice dress shirts and jerseys, and saying ‘Sign it, sign it.’ We were taking pictures with a ton of people. We were there an hour after every game signing autographs and taking pictures.

“I don’t consider myself a celebrity, but to interact with kids who look up to you and try to be an example to them was a cool experience. I always laugh, I’m signing this and thinking, I wonder what they’re getting out of this? But they must like it, so I don’t take anything away from that. It was fun. What an experience to have, someone wanting your autograph. It makes you feel kind of cool. It was interesting.”

Just for the record, guys, Barnett does not consider himself a celebrity.

Still, Barnett’s experience in the Far East is the product of very real excitement around the game in China. It’s one thing for Chinese fans to show up for LeBron James and Kevin Durant; it’s entirely another to show up for a bunch of college players most Chinese fans have surely never heard of until they arrived at the gym. At this rate – given China’s population and economic growth (though that growth is beginning to slow now) – how long will it be before that enthusiasm turns into talent? How many millions of China’s 1.3 billion population are already playing the sport? How long before Chinese players, like players from Europe and Africa and South America, become part of the average college coach’s scouting diet? How long before the NBA expands to Beijing?

It may take a few more years. It may take decades. Maybe it will never happen. But basketball is arguably the most popular sport (save perhaps table tennis, badminton and soccer) in the most populous nation in the world. Its fans want autographs from Jake Barnett. I don’t know what this means for the game in the next 20 years. But I’m very excited to find out.