David Stern looked like a lost American tourist standing outside of the Chinese Central Television offices in Beijing for hours in 1989. Three years before the Dream Team made the world fall in love with basketball, the then-NBA commissioner actually helped light the spark that led to China falling in love with his league.
"I was following what was going on in the media industry, particularly movies that were making their entrance into China," Stern recently told ESPN. "And so, in the late '80s, I went to Beijing. There is a story they tell about me being stood up by [China's] head of sport. I said, 'I'll wait in the lobby until he accepts us.' And he came and met us, and we agreed to give him tapes of NBA games, and we would sell the [advertising] time, and share the revenue with [CCTV, China's national television broadcaster]. And that is when the NBA began being a Chinese staple.
"Fans probably enjoy the fact that I had to wait in the lobby for [CCTV]. I could say I was in the cold shivering, but it was summertime. ... But it was too good of a market to give up on. The NBA then wasn't what the NBA is now."
There is no question the NBA has grown from winter cold to summertime hot in China.
Basketball has grown so much in China that 30 years later the country is playing host to the 2019 FIBA World Cup, a tournament that saw Team USA's 58-game winning streak (with NBA players) snapped in an 89-79 quarterfinal loss to France on Wednesday.
Today, China boasts many amazing arenas that can host basketball games. For the FIBA World Cup, eight cities hosted games, including Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. NBA fans by the millions are watching games on their phones. As many as 18 million fans have tuned in at once to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski for trade scoops and storylines, while getting pregame and postgame reaction on Chinese media outlet Tencent's live streaming platform. In late July, Tencent and the NBA announced a five-year extension of their partnership through the 2024-25 season for a reported $1.5 billion.
"Empowered by our technology capabilities, interactive platforms and content expertise, we will work closely with the NBA to further engage fans in China with sports excitement and technology innovations to elevate the passion for basketball, and to promote a healthy and active lifestyle," Tencent president Martin Lau said.
Indeed, in the years since Stern stood outside those CCTV offices, China's rabid basketball fans have fallen in love with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and more. Chinese Basketball Association fans have paid admission to see former NBA guards Stephon Marbury and Jimmer Fredette, with Jeremy Lin slated to arrive in the league this season. NBA preseason games have been played in China since 2004. The Jr. NBA program launched in 2015 for the country's youth. And most notably, Chinese fans saw one of their own, Yao Ming, become a star with the Houston Rockets and eventually inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
"Our long-term objective is to get more kids playing the game, experiencing what it's like to be part of a team, a basketball family, to have teammates and buy into that culture and all the values around this game," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. "Yao is playing a significant part in that."
A recent report by Tencent (with whom ESPN has a broadcast partnership) stated nearly 500 million fans are consuming NBA content in China.
"The NBA has become the most popular game in China," said Shuangfu Li, former NBA beat writer and co-founder and president of Lanxiong Sports, which covers the NBA in China.
"The NBA did two things right. One was to keep marketing the young stars, from Kobe to LeBron, from Curry to Kyrie, the new products never stopped coming. Second, by partnering up with the Ministry of Education in China and investing heavily in kids and young programs like the Jr. NBA, the NBA has a solid and growing fan base. Also, the 12-hour time difference gives the NBA a perfect time slot to interact with young fans and they have been using and benefitting the whole time."
"[Stern] was the first person to utilize different media platforms to build an intimate relationship with the fans, and he did it so perfectly," said Tencent analyst and former Chinese national team coach Zhang Weiping. "Another thing was the NBA's effort in helping improve Chinese basketball as a whole, including sending NBA coaches to China to hold [training] sessions. ... Stern also arranged scouting trips for general managers of CBA teams to visit the U.S. Chinese basketball has benefited from such trips."
No NBA star or coach, however, sold the NBA to China more than the arrival of Yao Ming.
Yao was a teen superstar for the Shanghai Sharks averaging 38.9 points and 20.2 rebounds a game during the 2000-01 season. The 7-foot-6 phenom had NBA executives, scouts and coaches drooling when he worked out in Chicago prior to the 2002 NBA draft. The Rockets instantly became China's favorite team when they drafted Yao with the top pick.
Yao was the first Asian player ever drafted No. 1 overall, but his road to America wasn't an easy one, as Stern recalled.
"China wasn't going to allow him to come out of the country to play in the NBA," Stern said. "I remember meeting with the president of the Shanghai Sharks. And they were all trying to get a payment from the NBA to allow Yao to come over. I said, 'We're not paying anything. If he wants to come, and you want him to come, he's welcome. And if you don't, that's OK, too.'
"But eventually they announced that he was able to come, and sure enough he was drafted No. 1 overall in the draft. ... It was a pretty exciting time, because he became a bridge [to China]."
Entering his rookie year, however, Yao received a lot of skepticism from American media not familiar with his game and didn't think he could adapt to the NBA's athleticism and speed. The mammoth Rockets center actually went scoreless in his debut and averaged four points in his first seven games. But Yao eventually picked up his game and was voted in to the 2003 NBA All-Star Game as a starter. As the runner-up for the 2002-03 NBA Rookie of the Year award, Yao averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game as a rookie.
Meanwhile back home in China, his fans were watching every single game with pride and thunder sticks at watch parties and falling further in love with the NBA. Stern said that Yao's games were shown on CCTV, Shanghai TV, the Shanghai Media Group and other channels.
And former Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy grew to love him on and off the court.
"Yao's legacy goes well beyond what he did on the floor," Van Gundy said. "Coming over from China to open up his country ... sure there were other Chinese professionals, but not to the magnitude of Yao. And the humility and grace with which he handled himself was off the charts. His sense of humor with teammates, coaches and opponents was unique.
"The truly defining thing about Yao was he was genuinely as happy for his teammates' success as he was for his own. You hear a lot of people say, 'I'm all about winning.' But what often goes unsaid is, 'if I get my own way.' With Yao, it was totally different. He only cared about his teammates and the results of the game. He had the confidence of a great player, but he was truly the most unselfish superstar that I've ever dealt with. Sure, he had ego and confidence, too, but man, was he special."
Yao averaged 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks during a nine-year NBA career, solely in Houston. The eight-time All-Star was the only international player to ever lead in All-Star vote-getting. Basketball fans will always wonder how great Yao could've been if he had not been plagued by foot injuries that limited him to 486 games in just eight seasons.
But the Basketball Hall of Fame showed its respect by admitting him into their doors, nonetheless. The Rockets also retired his No. 11 jersey. Van Gundy said the only center more dominant than Yao during his era was Shaquille O'Neal.
"At 7-6, he could score with either hand in the post," Van Gundy said. "He could pass. He could make free throws and was an enormous screen setter. So, you take all of those things and he was impossible to deal with. Only because his body gave way did he not go on to win championships that were in his future and his numbers would have been even better."
Today, the big question in Chinese basketball circles is who will be the next Yao?
Former NBA big men Wang Zhizhi and Mongolian Mengke Bateer weren't talented enough to become anything close to what Yao was. Yi Jianlian was perhaps the most skilled and athletic player from China to enter the NBA, but he did not come close to reaching his potential. There have also been some other Chinese players who have had cups of coffee in the NBA but didn't make a splash.
Van Gundy said the Chinese need to develop more guard and perimeter players in order to get another notable Chinese player in the NBA.
Currently, there does not appear to be any NBA superstar from China on the horizon. With Yao leading the way as CBA chairman and head of the Chinese national team, perhaps that will change. The Chinese national team even competed in the 2019 NBA summer league. So while the next Yao might not be in the near future, it has not lessened China's love for the NBA.
"In order to develop the next Yao Ming, I think China has to focus on the fundamentals, keep developing youth training and its own coaches," Zhang Weiping said. "Chinese basketball should continue to learn from the outside world at all levels. In the meantime, it should come up with methods that fit its own athletes."
Added Silver, "It frustrates me that there are no Chinese players in the NBA. There's probably more basketball being played in China than anywhere else in the world. And more NBA basketball is being watched in China than anywhere else in the world."
Further, China continues to be a haven for former NBA stars. Marbury won three CBA titles in Beijing and has a statue in the capital city. Rockets players from superstar James Harden to reserve Gerald Green are making their rounds in China. LeBron and Curry stage annual sneaker tours of China, as does Kobe Bryant. There are even NBA offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.
The NBA also continues to work with Yao on building training centers in China. By NBA estimates, almost 300 million fans play basketball in China.
"One of the things that we have worked on with Yao is the creation of academies in China," Silver said of the three Chinese NBA facilities located in Shandong, Xinjiang and Zhejiang. "Through these facilities we can bring together some of the best players at a young age, they can compete against each other, they can compete internationally in the summer, because ultimately that's what enables them to become NBA players. But we need to increase the pool of top-notch Chinese players. I think it will have a great impact on our league, and I think it will be good for Chinese basketball as well."