NBA hopes to capitalize on basketball's popularity in China

BEIJING -- NBA commissioner David Stern is intrigued by the question buzzing around the Beijing Games: Who would win a match-up between the 1992 Dream Team and the 2008 Redeem Team?

"I'd actually pay to buy a ticket for that one," Stern said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. And though he wouldn't pick a winner, he seemed to favor the frontcourt of the 1992 team.

"David Robinson and Karl Malone? And that was the frontcourt," Stern said. "Who else was up there? Patrick Ewing. So Patrick, David and Karl Malone -- that would be interesting."

That game may be a fantasy for hoop fans. But the reality is that both squads have helped the NBA as it tries to cash in on the global market.

The 1992 team -- with icons such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird -- introduced NBA basketball to the world stage. Sixteen years later, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have become China's darlings -- and the NBA is hoping capitalize on the basketball's popularity by investing millions in the sport's development in this sprawling nation.

The league has plans for an NBA-affiliated league here, and Stern envisions league partnership in as many as "eight or 10 or 12 arenas throughout China."

"The world is embracing the sport that the Dream Teamers brought to Barcelona," Stern said. "And I would say the 2008 Olympics really demonstrate that complete embrace."

Stern said he never imagined the NBA/China relationship that began in 1985 would be as popular as it is at the Beijing Games.

"You know, I didn't even dare to think about that," Stern said. "The question was one step at a time. If you've been along on the journey, sometimes you don't realize how far you've come."

Stern said the league does not see China as an entry point to Asia.

India could be next on the NBA's radar. Stern said NBA officials have met in Beijing with Indian authorities, and the league staged its first Basketball Without Borders events in India this summer.

"We think that that's a very promising market," said Stern, who arrived in Beijing on Monday night and attended the U.S.' 106-57 victory over Germany.

"The sport is very much on the move," he said.

Stern said NBA China is in an "ongoing dialogue" with Chinese authorities about installing 800,000 baskets in villages across this sprawling country. The NBA also hopes to be involved with a Chinese professional league. But Stern balked at comparisons with the NBA's Development League.

"That would be a separate league that would be NBA-affiliated or NBA-sponsored, but it would be independent," Stern said. "And it would just sign players. For a very long time to come it would be at a lower scale than the NBA. But as the sport develops in China, and as more players around the world recognize the opportunities of playing in China, we see that league growing and strengthening."

For now, the NBA will maintain its on-court presence in China with exhibition games, with games planned for Guangzhou and Beijing this fall. The teams have not been announced.

"I think that that is likely to become a regular thing," Stern said.

The Chinese have adopted the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, which faces Australia in the quarterfinals on Wednesday night after annihilating its five group B opponents.

Aside from host China and Yao Ming, the U.S. has been the crowd favorite in this tournament -- a big change from 2004 Olympics in Athens, when the Americans were jeered.

"Coming out of Athens, there was just more of a focus at every level on the game and the representation of one's country, and we're just doing a better job collectively on that front," Stern said. "And our players, of course, are responding wonderfully."

One reason cited for the U.S.' success: USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo asked players for a three-year commitment culminating in Beijing. Stern endorses the idea.

"I think that I would encourage USA Basketball and the NBA players to focus upon longer than bringing a group together" for one tournament, Stern said. "I think that commitment is not just about the teamwork but also about the international discipline that comes from basketball diplomacy. And our players are learning their lessons well."