It’s Friday night in the biggest city in the world’s most populous country, and thousands of Shanghai hoops fans are streaming into an arena that resembles a giant space saucer, ready for a fan-appreciation night hosted by the National Basketball Association.
As the players take the court, the Chinese fans whoop, wave jerseys, scramble for autographs and pose for selfies. Who is in town? LeBron James? Kobe Bryant? No, it’s a warmup for an exhibition match Sunday between the Brooklyn Nets and the Sacramento Kings, two teams with global aspirations.
“I’ve been following the Kings since I was 12,” said Cai Yijiang, 22, who sat near the court with two friends waving their favorite Kings jerseys. Cai said he started following the Kings when Chris Webber was a star forward, and now watches the team’s games by streaming them onto his computers and mobile devices.
Over the last decade, the NBA has made lucrative inroads into dozens of countries, including China, which has 78 million people who follow the league on social media. The league’s leading ambassador is former Houston Rockets star Yao Ming, whose success popularized an already popular sport in China while turning the NBA into a household name.
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The NBA now wants to go further, not only in China, but in India, the world’s second largest consumer market. Yet in both countries, the league faces challenges, and not just the usual ones of red tape, language barriers and pirating of merchandise. In China’s case, the government has a monopoly over sports franchises and television, limiting potential revenues from broadcasting games.
Possibly the bigger challenge is finding homegrown talent. India has yet to produce a truly marquee player, and China hasn’t produced one since Yao, a 7-foot-6-inch center born in Shanghai. Without such a star, say some analysts, the NBA may not be able fully capitalize on the Chinese obsession with pro sports.
“Yao Ming is so important to the Chinese people. When he stepped off the playing court, there was a big vacuum affect. It was like, wow, what is next?” said Terry Rhoads, who runs a Shanghai-based sports marketing agency and has worked in China for 20 years, including nine with Nike.
Rhoads says that, overall, the NBA “has set the pace for an international sports league.” He says it’s possible the NBA could eventually have its own branded league in China. He also notes there are several promising players coming up for China, some playing in American universities.
But there also have been disappointments. One was 7-foot-tall Yi Jianlian, who played for the Milwaukee Bucks and three other NBA teams between 2007-2012, but never had a break-out season. He’s now a center for the Guangdong Southern Tigers in the Chinese Basketball Association.
Rhoads acknowledged that “filling Yao’s shoes is an impossible task.”
“When the NBA sits around and contemplates business plans for next 10 years, they are absolutely grinding their teeth over the lack of Chinese players having the right skills,” he said.
Give it some time, say NBA officials and owners. Vivek Ranadive, an India-born Silicon Valley tycoon who led the purchase of the Sacramento Kings last year for $535 million, says that, in a country as big as China, new stars are out there. He added that the NBA and China are partnering on several initiatives to tap into the top talent, including basketball camps led by none other than Yao Ming.
Vlade Divac, a former star center for Kings who’s accompanying Ranadive in China, pointed to another concern: many foreign players can’t make the transition to the NBA. But he also questioned if people’s expectations were too high.
“It is hard to produce another Michael Jordan,” said Divac, who was born in Serbia. “Every country has its own system, and you never know where the next great talent is coming up from.”
In China, the system is mainly in the hands of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), which was formed in 1994 and now has 20 teams. There is also the second-tier National Basketball League, for men, and a Women’s Chinese Basketball Association.
According to the Chinese Basketball Association, there are 300 million people in China playing basketball regularly, slightly less than the entire population of the United States. But high schools and sports leagues don’t identify talent early enough and give them the team skills essential for basketball, Rhoads said.
“The biggest shortfall for China is player development,” he said. “This country has amazing talent, but its potential isn’t being realized.”
Lack of venues is another obstacle for the NBA’s expansion plans. Shanghai and Beijing have NBA-quality arenas, but other major cities don’t have the means, or the year-round demand, to build modern entertainment palaces. Some have found such projects to be losing propositions, according to Francois Duchastel, managing partner of Voodoo Associates, a real estate planning company in Shanghai.
Chris Granger, who worked for the NBA for 14 years before becoming the King’s president last year, believes the problem is not insurmountable. “Think of all the cities in China with more than 5 million people,” he said. “You have to think there will be an increased sophistication of the venues.”
In some ways, China’s ossified sports system benefits the NBA. Unlike Amazon facing Chinese upstarts such as Alibaba, the NBA doesn’t face domestic competition in a country where young people are increasingly digitally savvy.
During the regular season in 2013, the NBA’s Chinese website registered 4.5 billion page views, a 34 percent increase over the previous year.
When the Kings play the Nets Sunday, it will mark the 17th time NBA teams have played in China, nearly all of them complete sellouts. The first came in 2004, when Houston Rockets (with Yao Ming) beat the Kings 88-86.
At home and abroad, each NBA team likes to flout its persona. When the Brooklyn Nets entered Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena Friday, the team did it with a hip-hop swagger, with music and lighting to match. The purple-clad Kings were more folksy, with the team mascot, a lion named “Slamson,” ducking into the crowd to mug with fans such as Lisa Liu, age 10.
Liu’s face lit up when she got the sweaty lion to sign an autograph. “I am so excited,” she said, speaking in English to a reporter trying to interview her in Chinese.
Like other NBA owners, Ranadive wants to develop a Chinese-language app for China to broaden his team’s fan base. Ranadive is a leading proponent of what he calls “NBA 3.0,” using technology to network fans and the team. His perfect app, he says would let fans see instant replays, crowd-source suggestions for the team and even deliver food and beverages to ticket holders at the press of a button.
Ranadive, who made part of his fortune from TIBCO Software, a company he started in 1997, says that India holds unlimited potential. He and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver are leading a league mission there next month. Ranadive said he recently met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in advance of the mission.
Asked whether India is ready for basketball, with its cramped cities, grinding poverty and near-devotion to cricket, Ranadive noted that India is rising faster than many realize. Makeshift courts are popping up across the country.
“Basketball is a game that can be played anywhere, by anyone -- rich, poor, boys and girls,” he said. “You don’t need a lot of space to play basketball, as you do with cricket. So I really think basketball is poised to take off.”
Following the fan appreciation night, the Kings on Saturday visited a primary school for children from poorer regions outside of Shanghai. Dressed in uniforms, the school kids played harmonica for the NBA players and officials. Silver, the NBA commissioner, stood on a stage under China’s five-star red-and-gold flag and dedicated a new play and learning center at the school.
The Kings players then practiced some basketball drills with the students. One tutor was Ben McLemore, who is making his second trip to China, after visiting in August to promote the exhibition games.
The 21-year-old guard, a native of St. Louis, said he’s enjoyed connecting with Chinese fans, both in the digital world and in person. “That is what helps them love the game so much,” he said of the interactions.
And could there be a future Chinese basketball star here? “You never know,” he replied. “That’s the cool thing.”
McClatchy Special Correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.