Hong Kong’s Love of the Game
Basketball fever is at an all-time high in Asia, specifically Hong Kong.
Last August, soon-to-be NBA superstar and youngest-scoring-champ ever Kevin Durant visited Hong Kong as part of the NBA Madness program. According to NBA Hong Kong marketing executive Venessa Chan, who was handling all of KD’s affairs in the former British colony turned Special Administrative Region of China, Durant wanted to play pickup games during down time between promotional events.
The exchange supposedly went like this:
“Um, Mr. Durant, we don’t think this is such a good idea, you’ll be mobbed by rabid fans,” said the concerned marketing exec, who dealt with Kobe and LeBron coming to Hong Kong in previous summers.
“Really? People would recognize me just like that?”
What Durant would soon learn is that yes, the NBA is big deal in Hong Kong.
David Stern eyeing the global market is nothing new, what with the Commish stating on several occasions that globalization of the League is one of his goals. But in recent years, the League has realized that China has become his second biggest market. Both the League and Nike has been sending the big guns (Kobe, LeBron, Durant) here every summer as a result.
But little do most Americans know, whereas China’s interest in the League had plenty to do with Yao Ming’s emergence, Hong Kong has embraced the League a decade before that. In fact, the NBA’s popularity in this world city may be unrivaled anywhere in the world other than in the most hardcore of U.S. cities.
A Hong Kong-specific NBA site was launched in 2009, making it just the fourth country-specific official NBA site. Ironic, considering Hong Kong isn’t a country, but a city with a population of only 7 million.
Why would the League focus on Hong Kong? Because the fans here are passionate, and unlike China, Hong Kong is more westernized and more adapt to the American culture. The attitude, swagger, and in yo face attitude of the League resonates here, where you’ll see 500 Kobe jerseys before you’ll see a Yao Ming jersey.
“We’ve definitely put more attention onto digital marketing, with Facebook and the website being an integral part of that,” says Ip Hung of NBA Hong Kong.
According to Nike’s Hong Kong reps, Hong Kong youths, due to western influence, idolize “cool players” – meaning the notion that Yao Ming is every Chinese’s favorite player is a complete fallacy.
“Kobe and LeBron are by far more popular here than any other athlete in any other sport,” says Brenda Lo Kwok-han of Nike Hong Kong.
That’s certainly true over in the Mongkok district– one of the most densely populated places in the entire world – of Hong Kong, where Kobe and LeBron’s mug make up almost every banner spanning across a street known as “sneaker street.” Here, it’s Air Jordans and Hyperdunks over anything else.
It’s this type of penetration in to market that has introduced “black culture” to the sub-consciousness of youths. In Hong Kong, where English is part of everyday conversation more than any other Chinese-speaking region, words like “yo,” “kicks,” and “fresh” have become part of a young male’s vernacular.
Hong Kong Basketball League Division I player Mike Heung, whose handles have earned him the nickname “Hong Kong Iverson,” says the swagger of the game is what appealed to him as a kid. “Iverson really introduced the whole hip hop culture – tattoos, cornrows, the attitude – to the game and that has no doubt had an influence on local youths,” he says. “I mean, it’s natural to pick up the attitude and the style of dress when watching your favorite player.”
Heung got a taste of that swagger first hand in 2008, when Hot Sauce – here for the AND 1 streetball tour – bounced the rock off his face. “I can’t lie, I was upset at first,” Heung says. “But then I realized, hey…this is streetball, settle it on the court.”
The man who brought the tour to the city, Rock Ng Ka-lok, was a college athlete at the University of Rhode Island in the 90s and realized Hong Kong has a craving for attitude and swagger in sports. “Chinese basketball is so boring to watch,” says Ng, whose company DplexGroup aims to bring hip hop style entertainment to Hong Kong. “I knew there was an audience here for streetball, the cross overs, the dunks, the oops, and so on.”
Ng has organized And One streetball tours in Taiwan and China as well, but Hong Kong has by far the biggest audience.
So while China continues to blindly support Chinese players and their teams, Hong Kongers are obsessed with good basketball, one that is preferably played with an attitude.
“I have never, ever, seen a Yao Ming jersey in Hong Kong,” says Heung. “I mean, come on, all those blind votes that puts him in the All-Star game every year? It ain’t coming from Hong Kong. We know how to vote here.”
Ben Sin is a California-raised, Hong Kong-based journalist currently writing for Time Out Hong Kong. His true passion, some say obsession, is basketball. Visit his blog at therearenoroads.wordpress.com.