China loves the NBA, and the NBA loves China. The relationship may have looked a little rocky in the past year, but that statement still holds true today, as evidenced by state broadcaster CCTV opting to broadcast game 5 of the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat in China — the first NBA game to be shown live on that channel since October 2019.
An estimated over 300 million people play basketball in China, and the NBA still far outstrips the Chinese basketball league, the CBA, in popularity. Of course, this time last year, a tweet from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey launched a PR catastrophe that wiped the team from Chinese airwaves and ensured some frosty exchanges between the NBA and Chinese authorities, it ultimately failed to dampen the association’s growing fan base in the country.
How Basketball Became China’s Most Beloved Sport
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that a handful of NBA players have built ongoing relationships with the country and its fans over the years. These go beyond the occasional promotional tour — from Dwyane Wade’s stint as a reality TV host, to Stephon Marbury’s decade-long love affair as both player and coach in the Chinese Basketball Association.
Here are five NBA stars whose relationships with China go deeper than you might expect.
D-Wade is a legend in the States, and that reputation carries over into China — the NBA All-Star was even offered 25 million USD to play for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls.
Wade ultimately turned down the offer, electing to end his player career with the Miami Heat. But that didn’t stop him from cashing in on his fame in China — Wade went on to join hit basketball reality show Dunk of China as a coach, alongside former Heat teammate Udonis Haslem and Golden State Warriors’ Nick Young.
Call me Coach Wade https://t.co/H7FHrfJqjl— DWade (@DwyaneWade) August 20, 2019
Call me Coach Wade https://t.co/H7FHrfJqjl
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) August 20, 2019
And while D-Wade may have passed on the 25 million USD deal in Zhejiang, he’s still putting RMB in the bank — the superstar also has a “lifetime deal” with Chinese sports brand Li-Ning, as well as his own spin-off line, Way of Wade.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Kyle Anderson is one eighth Chinese, courtesy of his mother’s grandfather, Li Chongxin, who moved to the US in the early 20th century. But until recently the NBA player, who just transferred to the Grizzlies from the San Antonio Spurs, knew little of his Chinese roots.
That changed in 2018 when a cousin of his mother’s started looking into the family’s Chinese heritage on regular business trips to the country. It ultimately led to Anderson’s visit to Shenzhen, which was organized by China-focused talent reps Acorn Entertainment. Anderson was joined by his mother and girlfriend in visiting 30 distant relatives in the southern Chinese city, who were introduced to the American side of the family by 70-year-old Li Tianping, the eldest son of Anderson’s great-grandfather’s eldest son.
NBA Player Kyle Anderson Traces His Chinese Roots in Shenzhen
Cue lots of smiles, some tears, and a few shots of famous rice liquor Moutai. Anderson didn’t mention whether he’d be working the fiery Chinese alcohol into his regular off-season diet, but he did talk about feeling “at home” with his long lost relatives and promised to return again soon.
Kobe’s reputation as a larger-than-life figure spread across the world long before the his premature death.
Bryant visited China multiple times and was a mega-star in a country that has long had a fervent passion for basketball. His first visit to mainland China was in 1998, and just over a decade later he set up a charitable fund in the country to “raise money for education, sports, and culture programs for children from China and the United States.”
He also directed his US-based charitable fund “to strengthen ties between the two countries by teaching [US] middle school students about Chinese language and culture.” Only last year, before he passed away, he served as an ambassador for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in the country.
The emergency department of Huaxi hospital in Chengdu received 50 cups of coffee from an anonymous citizen today. And there's a handwritten message on each of them.One message reads: Kobe is gone, but the Mamba Mentality is still here. We are here. pic.twitter.com/MrBtkPbSLS— Chenchen Zhang??♀️ (@chenchenzh) January 27, 2020
The emergency department of Huaxi hospital in Chengdu received 50 cups of coffee from an anonymous citizen today. And there's a handwritten message on each of them.One message reads: Kobe is gone, but the Mamba Mentality is still here. We are here. pic.twitter.com/MrBtkPbSLS
— Chenchen Zhang??♀️ (@chenchenzh) January 27, 2020
News of Bryant’s death at the age of 41 became the top trending topic on Chinese microblogging site Weibo, overtaking a number of coronavirus-related terms during the ongoing pandemic.
Yi Jianlian, one of China’s most famous basketball players (and who briefly signed with the Lakers in 2016), wrote on Weibo at the time:
“When we both had the same finger injury, I rested for a month and a half. You didn’t rest for a day. From that moment on, I learnt the true meaning of persistence from you […] Thank you Kobe […] Rest in peace to the legend.”
If this list were written to scale, 4/5 of these players would be Stephon Marbury.
Before he started his career with the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), Marbury was known as a controversial “lone wolf” in the NBA. After relocating his career to China, Marbury first played with the Zhongyu Brave Dragons, Shanxi’s CBA team, and later with the CBA team from Foshan in southern China.
At first, there weren’t many fans that thought he would could it work in China, though as an NBA star he was a welcome presence on CBA courts. Things didn’t change much until he started to play for the Beijing Ducks in 2011. Since then, he has become a highly respected teammate, a coach-like trainer, and a foreign visitor widely revered for showing his respect and love for the city he played for. Marbury earned a rabid fanbase in Beijing after leading the Ducks to three championships, in 2012, 2014, and 2015, receiving the CBA finals MVP title along the way.
All this has led to Marbury’s recognition as a hero (and now a special permanent resident) in China’s capital — he even had a movie made about his story. Many fans in China call him “Commissar Ma” in praise of his dedication to the sport, and his contribution to rebuilding the Ducks and leading them to their first string of championships.
While the history books may point mostly to Yao Ming, the modern era of Asian representation in basketball has been largely defined by Jeremy Lin.
Lin’s legacy began with the notorious era of “Linsanity” — a period in 2012 when Lin was given his first real chance to make an impact on the court, becoming a household name and leading the Knicks’ recovery from a dismal season to a spot in the playoffs.
After being outscored by Lin in a Knicks victory over the Lakers, Kobe Bryant himself remarked:
“Players playing that well don’t usually come out of nowhere. It seems like they come out of nowhere, but if you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning. It probably just went unnoticed.”
Lin’s story took a dramatic turn after a knee injury sidelined him for the remainder of the 2012 season. The years that followed saw a painful path for Lin, as he bounced between different teams, struggling to find his role and to live up to the expectations he’d set for himself.
In 2019 with no NBA offers, Lin signed with the Beijing Ducks — the same team Stephon Marbury helped develop during his time with the CBA. It was heralded as a homecoming of sorts, a second chance for the Taiwanese-American player to make a difference. Lin played a strong season, making it to the semi-finals but ultimately missing the three-pointer that would have kept the tie alive.
After a turbulent, drama-filled year in China, Lin announced his intention to leave the Beijing Ducks in the hopes of a return to the NBA. In a video posted to his Weibo account, Lin said his CBA season had “been an honor” and called the decision “the hardest in [his] life.”
The star’s road ahead is currently uncertain, but paved with hope.
For more on Lin’s relationship with China, read RADII’s interview with the man himself:
“I’ve Always Known My Journey Would End in China”: Jeremy Lin’s Off-Season Grind Benefits Chinese Youth
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