When Yao joined the NBA in 2002, basketball was already big in the Middle Kingdom. Now, it’s colossal.
Yao Ming first appeared on the NBA scene in 2002 and quickly became one of the league’s biggest stars. He had the intrigue factor working for him, being the first Chinese-born player in NBA history. He was also a dominant force on court, one of the few players who could go toe-to-toe with Shaquille O’Neill in the paint.
Yao’s NBA feats were illustrious during his nine NBA seasons. He made the All-NBA second or third team five times and led the Houston Rockets to multiple playoff appearances. Basketball fans everywhere shed a tear in 2011 when he announced his early retirement due to persistent foot and leg injuries.
The Chinese phenomenon certainly earned his status as one of the NBA’s most beloved players, and an icon for the city of Houston. But those accomplishments pale in comparison to his greatest feat: helping Chinadevelop into a basketball-mad country.
A brief history of Chinese basketball
Many Westerners are surprised to discover that basketball has a history in China almost as long as it does in the West, being brought to the Middle Kingdom by American missionaries during the first years of the 20th century.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, basketball was the favored athletic pursuit of many members of the Chinese Communist Party, who were reportedly impressed by the sport’s capacity for developing group cohesion in an organic, non-coercive manner. Communist party leaders and Red Army soldiers played the game during the mythologized “Long March” of the 1930s.
When Mao instigated an assault on foreign influence during the “Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s, basketball was left unscathed. One Chinese man who came of age during the Cultural Revolution remarked: “At that time, China had basically only two sports: basketball and ping pong.”
Thus basketball enjoyed tremendous popularity already in 1987, when the NBA awarded broadcasting rights to China Central Television. 27 years later, it is estimated that roughly 450 million Chinese watch NBA games on TV at least occasionally, and the People’s Republic is a major source of overseas revenue for the NBA.
The sport is so popular that people are willing to break the saw in their passion for it. While Chinese gambling laws prohibit sports betting, there are also reports coming out of China that millions of basketball fans wager on games with offshore online sportsbooks.
How Yao pushed the frontier forward
The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) first launched in 1995, and while it is the country’s most popular domestic sports league, Chinese basketball fanatics overwhelmingly prefer to watch NBA games. That trend accelerated further when Yao was drafted first overall by the Rockets in the 2002 NBA Draft.
For the first time ever, Chinese fans could watch one of their own compete against stars like O’Neill, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Television subscription sales skyrocketed and millions of Yao jerseys were purchased by Chinese customers.
• Yao Ming was taken first overall in the 2002 NBA Draft
• 450 Chinese watch on TV broadcasts of NBA games
• The Atlantic: 300 million Chinese play rec basketball
By 2012, The Atlantic reported that roughly 300 million Chinese were playing in recreational basketball leagues. While that figure is almost certainly inflated, the message is undeniable: basketball is big and getting bigger.
Perhaps Yao’s most tangible contribution to the state of the game in China was fostering deeper cooperation between the NBA and CBA. The NBA has long seen China as a fantastic business opportunity, and Yao’s arrival in America helped build a bridge across the two leagues.
In 2008 the NBA and CBA collaborated to launch NBA China, a project designed to help the sport’s growth. Specific initiatives had included refurbishing arenas in Chinese cities, training coaches and referees, and establishing the “CBA Dongguan Basketball School for elite players” (ESPN).
The results have been palpable. By 2007, 20% of daily traffic to the NBA’s official website was coming from Chinese IP addresses, and TV viewership of NBA games has risen each year without exception. The NBA has also announced plans to build a massive sports facility outside Beijing.
While plans for the launch of an NBA-sponsored professional league in China have stalled, cooperation remains at an all-time high. Basketball was big in China long before Yao was born in 1980, but the sport, the NBA, and his country each owe him a major debt.
Passing the torch
Some feared that Yao’s retirement in 2011 would create a vacuum in Chinese basketball, with no star player to follow in his footsteps. Those fears proved unfounded, as the following year, a little-known kid from Harvard became the darling of the basketball world.
Jeremy Lin, the American-born son of parents from the Republic of China (Taiwan) burst onto the scene in 2012 and quickly became a star on both sides of the Pacific. Lin’s stat-lines with the New York Knicks were so impressive that online and mobile bettingsites were accepting wagers on how many points he would score in a game.
While Lin refers to himself as “Taiwanese,” the refusal to claim lineage from the People’s Republic has done nothing to dampen his star with mainland Chinese fans. NBA China CEO David Shoemaker spoke of Lin’s immense impact on the business success of basketball in China:
We were in the midst of having our strongest year on record [in China], and then in a burst of a few short days in February, Jeremy came along and ‘Linsanity’ was born. The impact here in China was as strong, if not stronger, than everywhere else in the world.