Strong to the hoop and American shores: Zhou Qi, the Houston Rockets’ 2016 second round pick
Image: David Ramos / Getty Images
The NBA, while a “national association”, conducts a large part of its basketball business on international soil. The brand has grown especially popular in Asia, a region that carries the NBA’s second- and third-largest revenue markets in China and the Philippines, respectively.
And yet, despite Asia making up roughly 60 percent of the world’s population, in a class of 113 foreign players to break camp with an NBA squad this season, not one hailed from that continent (unless you count Australia).
In recent years, the league’s dedicated offices for China, India and six other Asian markets have launched initiatives, including newly opened academies, to establish the game across all levels of play.
For the NBA to reach its full potential in Asia, the region is going to need stars its fan bases can identify with. Players with full or partial Asian heritage (see Jeremy Lin) obviously help, but having a high-level player born and raised in Asia is key.
Yao Ming, an eight-time All-Star for the Houston Rockets from 2003 to 2011 and a recent Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, did wonders for the game in China. But since the 7-footer’s retirement in 2011, the country of nearly 1.4 billion has failed to produce any standouts. The Rockets’ 2016 second-round pick Zhou Qi is the country’s most promising prospect in years, but his ceiling is probably closer to that of Yi Jianlian, whose NBA career fizzled out after five seasons.
Satnam Singh is the only Indian player to come close to gracing the NBA hardwood, but the 2015 second-rounder has floundered with the Dallas Mavericks’ D-League affiliate. The Philippines, where basketball borders on religion, has yet to produce any NBA-calibre talent.
The league’s remedy? Nurture the sport, and its participants. “There may be nothing more important than having players come out of that region and be in our league,” said Mark Tatum, NBA deputy commissioner, chief operating officer and leader of all NBA international efforts. “What we’re hoping to do is provide the coaching, the training and the competition required to develop an All-Star-calibre player.”
It’s been just over four years since the league first introduced “Jr NBA” to Asia, adapting to China, India and its Southeast Asian markets its American youth programme designed to impart fundamental skills and core values. The programme has garnered participation from over 5.5 million youth, parents and coaches in the region. “To use a basketball expression, we’re employing a full-court press behind youth development,” NBA China CEO David Shoemaker says. “It starts with a partnership we have with the ministry of education, where we teach basketball as part of the physical education curriculum in elementary, middle and high school.”
“ It (basketball) can be the No 2 sport in cricket-mad India... maybe in five to six years.
Jr NBA’s success has afforded the programme an advisory council for Greater Asia, featuring Basketball Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo and business leaders (including Forbes Asia CEO William Adamopoulos). It has also led to the formation of sister programmes like the NBA Yao School, an after-school league for teenagers that, above all else, emphasises playing basketball for the sheer enjoyment of it.
“Yao himself believes that what has been lacking in China is the number of people that have played sports for the fun,” Shoemaker says. The NBA icon has lately assumed the presidency of the China Basketball Association (CBA), a national league of teams.
India has followed suit. With Jr NBA in 19 of its cities across the country, it made sense for Mumbai to become the site of the league’s first NBA Basketball School, which opened its doors this spring. The tuition-based programme is for youth to age 18.
Taking it a step further, prospects with professional basketball aspirations now have the opportunity to enrol in one of the newly formed NBA Academies. The hope is that these global hubs—including three in China, one in India and one in Australia that all launched this year—will turn Asian national team players into legitimate NBA hopefuls.
“We have government-funded academies in a lot of sports, but in terms of that level of facility, it’s the first,” says NBA India Managing Director Yannick Colaco. “We’re creating a legacy through this knowledge transfer with local coaches.”
Supporting local pro basketball leagues will prove just as essential to the sport’s reach. But the NBA not having a direct hand in how it conducts business and handles its talent has presented some challenges.
Of the 113 foreign players to break camp with an NBA squad this year, not one hailed from Asia
Many CBA officials, for example, double as investors in the Chinese league, leading to top domestic talent being coddled and barred from leaving the country to play in Europe, a prime entry point to the NBA. National team participation is mandatory, even when it leaks into the CBA season. The fundamental structure of the league—from outdated arenas to a three-month schedule to an overreliance on American imports—has left a majority of its teams in the red.
“With [Yao] at the helm, many of the old practices will fall by the wayside,” Shoemaker says of China’s professional-player development.
India’s situation is even more problematic, as it lacks a clear-cut professional league due to reported infighting within the Basketball Federation of India (BFI).
But there’s an effort to change. “Our focus is growing the game of basketball... in that sense, we’re completely aligned,” Colaco says of NBA India’s relationship with the BFI. “Everything we do, we do in correlation with the federation.”
The long-tenured Philippine Basketball Association is having its own problems filling stadiums, but a newly opened NBA office in Manila should present more opportunities for collaboration.
Japan, which had an NBA office in Tokyo from 1994 to 2011, is also back on the pro basketball map after launching a new league with backing from the domestic sports authority. With the Olympics coming to the country in 2020, Tatum of the NBA hints at renewed ties.
Unlike most of the NBA-viewing public, Asian fans are forced to catch games in the morning—either on their commute or, for many, when they’re already at work. But despite occupying a bad block for programming, viewership has steadily climbed across all major markets, due in large part to advances in live streaming.
“Their fans are sophisticated,” Tatum says. “In those time zones, they’re watching our games on our mobile platforms, our digital platforms... there’s a consumption habit that’s now been built there because we’re making the product readily available, easily accessible to them.”
Lucrative rights deals have been signed across broadcast and social media in several Asian nations, as well as videogames.
No surprise, Asia’s also a priority for the league’s most marketable players. Kevin Durant, who toured China last summer, will grace the hardwood of the NBA Academy in India this off-season. Fellow international “endorsement All-Stars” like LeBron James (Nike, Tencent, Intel), Stephen Curry (UA, Vivo) and James Harden (Adidas) now make annual trips across the globe.
While individual player appearances are met with fanfare and mobs, the NBA’s Global Games—pre-season exhibitions involving two NBA teams or one NBA team and a foreign club—have arguably been an even bigger hit. “It’s almost treated like an All-Star game when we go there,” Tatum says. “Last year, we sold out both games in a matter of hours.”
This, despite the games not even counting toward the teams’ win-loss records, is a true testament to the region’s interest in the league’s live-event experience. Actual regular-season games in Asia would obviously do big business, but that hasn’t been attempted since a 2003 visit to Japan. “Frankly, I don’t see us playing regular-season games today in that part of the world,” Tatum says, citing “jet lag and the potential impact it might have with their performance on the court”.
Though the Global Games have made stops in the Philippines, Taipei and Macau, China has served as the exclusive Asia host for the past few years. That is to continue in 2017, with the league strategically selecting the country’s top merchandise-selling team, the Golden State Warriors, to play the Minnesota Timberwolves, who sold a minority ownership stake to Chinese businessman Lizhang Jiang last summer.
Markets like Indonesia and the Philippines are beginning to lay the groundwork to follow in China’s footsteps, but cricket-mad India may actually offer the most surprising upside in hoops. Its national team upset China in Asia tournaments in two of the last three years. “We know its qualities resonate with Indian youth,” says Colaco. “We believe it can be the number-two sport in the country... maybe in five to six years.”
(This story appears in the 07 July, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)