by Alan Paul
When the USA basketball team stood on the gold medal stand today for the first time since the 2000 Sydney Games, they not only brought glory to the their country but also to their regular employers; the National Basketball Association.
Already a large presence in China, the NBA has only seen its stature increased with the excellent performance of its star players. Any American talking about to any Chinese these days is likely to hear about “how strong” the basketball team is. And, of course, with a huge worldwide TV audience, the impact of the “Redeem Team’s” strong play will be felt way beyond the host country.
The international expansion and growth of basketball began in 1992 with the original Dream Team, featuring Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and other legends of the game. It was the first time professional players appeared in the Olympics and it went a huge way towards spreading the game and helping its popularity surge. It is now second only to soccer in international popularity.
Major League Baseball might want to take a good hard look at these significant international strides and consider what it is missing out on by keeping their season going and their players out of the Olympics.
Here in China, NBA players are superstars of the first degree, as the cheers that greet the introductions of the entire American team, but especially Lebron James and Kobe Bryant make clear. NBA players from other nations, like Andrei Kirilenko, Dirk Nowtizki, Manu Ginobli, Luis Scola and Pau Gasol also receive far more adulation here than any of their teammates.
“You can find an NBA game any day of the season anywhere in China,” said Chinese National Team Coach Sarunas Kazlauskas. “But you can search high and low and never find a European League game. Even my own players are awestruck being on the court with the NBA players.”
Now, the NBA is launching NBA China, a separate venture with the Chinese Basketball Association. Details have to be announced but are expected to be this fall. The Wukesong Beijing Olympic Basketball Arena is likely to become NBA China’s first venue, though the League is expected to build more such arenas across the country.
The League took unprecedented control of the building’s construction, and early renderings showed the NBA logo projected onto the bamboo-like aluminum ribbons that adorn the arena’s exterior. They ultimately made changes that added as much as $47 million to the arena’s approximately $162 million price, according to the developers. The NBA brought-in the American architect who worked on the Rockets’ home court, Houston’s Toyota Center. The league had input on everything from scoreboard and concession-stand design to seat padding. It made sure the arena had Western toilets in the bathrooms, not squat models.
When they made all of these decisions and spent all that money, NBA officials and even the developers were no doubt imagining the very scene that took place this afternoon. Bryant, James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and their eight other teammates—each of them NBA players—stood front and center of the arena floor, atop the gold medal podium, soaking in the adulation of the crowd, dropping their heads and having gold medals draped across their necks.
They stood tall, medals on necks, rose bouquets in their hands, showing both pride and joy, as the Star Spangled Banner blasted through the Olympics Basketball Arena. It will not be the last time the NBA makes a mark in this arena.