By Lena Price
Miami Heat all star LeBron James leapt over two opponents and slammed the ball hard to the rim, securing a victory for his team in the first game of the 2011 NBA finals on June 1 at American Airlines Arena in Miami.
More than 7,000 miles away, a student at a Beijing college yelled at his laptop and nearly slammed it shut. Although the game aired at 9 a.m. local time, Jason Shi, a 22-year-old at Beijing Foreign Studies University, got up early hoping to see the Dallas Mavericks defeat Miami.
“I get so into these games,” said Shi, who grew up in central Beijing. “It’s frustrating. If I miss one I have to stream it later online.”
Shi is one of an estimated 450 million NBA fans throughout China, according to the organization’s website. The number has grown steadily since Chinese broadcast company CCTV aired its first full championship series in 1994.
Ding Ren Hai, the manager of the Beijing Angels – a coed basketball club made up of both local and international players – said the popularity of the organization is likely to continue increasing.
“The NBA is on every corner here,” Ding said through a translator.
China’s younger generation grew up with the NBA and it has become a part of every day life, Ding said. He said it started to take off in 1999 when the NBA drafted its first Chinese national player, Wang Zhi Zhi, who left the league to play for the Chinese national team six years later.
The NBA picked up even more momentum in 2011 when Chinese native Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets.
Ding said many China-based businesses – everything from yogurt to beer – use NBA symbols and players to advertise their products. The city also has an official NBA store located in its main financial district. More than 1,000 people lined up to buy balls and jerseys from the store when it opened just prior to the 2008 Olympics.
Shi, who said he watches about 100 games a season and plays for his school, started tuning in about 11 years ago when his dad turned on a game.
He said he thinks the game is popular among young people because unlike soccer or American football, it doesn’t take much space to play. At urban Beijing primary schools that can have upwards of 3,000 students, that’s a big advantage.
“It’s easy, you just need a hoop and a ball,” Shi said. “And you don’t need a lot of space to practice your skills.”
Shi also attributed the league’s popularity to the personalities and talents of major NBA players. He said he can hardly go anywhere in Beijing without seeing the faces of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James looking down at him from billboards.
“These are guys we can admire,” he said. “As more stars continue to emerge, it’s just going to keep getting more exciting for fans in China.”