Some of U.S. professional basketball's top players are heading to China later this year. It's part of efforts to encourage closer cultural and business ties between the United States and China.
Call it sports diplomacy. The National Basketball Association, in conjunction with the private Asia Society, is holding its NBA China Games in October. Two NBA teams, the Houston Rockets and the Sacramento Kings, will play pre-season games in Beijing and Shanghai. These exhibition games will be broadcast live in China and the United States and the player certain to grab the spotlight is Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets.
Nicholas Platt, president of the Asia Society, says the games present a unique opportunity to promote closer ties between the two countries. "Basketball is such a popular sport in both countries and you have in Yao Ming and the Rockets a connection there which results in 200 million Chinese watching American basketball every single week. So in people-to-people terms this is the biggest single thing in our relationship," he said.
Yao Ming's court skills have helped generate publicity for the NBA in China, so much so that that the Rockets' website even has a special Chinese-language version. This will be the first time the 2.50 meter-tall Chinese Center will return to his native country as a player for his NBA team.
More than 100 people, team owners, sponsors and other major stakeholders of the NBA, will accompany the athletes. NBA Vice President Andrew Messick says China is a lucrative market for the organization and its business partners.
"China is enormously important to the NBA. Our brand of basketball is enormously popular. And we think there is great opportunity as china continues to grow and develop for basketball in china to grow and develop," he said.
He adds that the basketball league, which opened it's first office in Hong Kong in 1992, has seen its business, including selling NBA merchandise, in China double each year for the last several years. The NBAA says its basketball games are now beamed into more than 300 million homes in China.
Besides Yao Ming, there are three other Chinese basketball players in the NBA.
With basketball's popularity growing in China, Mr. Messick says he expects more Chinese players to have hoop dreams. "As players continue, as the sport continues to grow, as there continues to be advances in the selection and coaching and development of basketball players in China, we do expect there will be more Chinese players in the league and we'd be very disappointed if there weren't," he said.
The promotional trip later this year also marks the 25th anniversary of the organization's first trip to China, when the Washington Bullets, now known as the Washington Wizards, played two exhibition games against the Chinese National team.