Following the NBA obsessively is the norm in China, a country where an estimated 300 million people play basketball, per the Chinese Basketball Association, and where nearly half of the population watched NBA programming during the 2017-18 season, according to the NBA.
Getting kissed on the head by Joel Embiid or playing ping pong with Markelle Fultz, however, is something entirely new.
NBA China CEO Derek Chang says that opportunity to experience the league and its players on an intimate level is one of the biggest benefits of the NBA China Games.
“This is the one opportunity we have to bring the in-depth, full-on NBA experience to China and deliver that to our passionate fans,” Chang said Sunday in a phone interview from Shenzhen with NBC Sports Philadelphia. “They’re thirsting for this more than ever.”
Chang emphasized that this trip by the Sixers and the Dallas Mavericks is just one aspect of the league’s reach into China. There are a ton of other ways that he’s trying to grow the game in a country already in love with basketball.
Year-round broadcasts; more digital content; the expansion of Jr. NBA programs, in collaboration with the Chinese Ministry of Education, reaching 4,000 schools and four million children; his partnership with Hall of Famer Yao Ming, the current president of the Chinese Basketball Association, as the country seeks to develop more elite players — it all matters to Chang.
But he recognizes that, for Chinese fans, nothing compares to getting to meet the stars they see on billboards every day and watching them up close instead of through a television or computer screen.
“This is my first China Games that I’ve been part of,” Chang said. “I showed up at the hotel in Shanghai the other night where the teams (were) staying, and the crowds of people waiting to see the players coming out of the hotel was unbelievable. It’s like they’re all mega pop stars — which, in China, they are. You do actually have to come here to experience it. Even for me, I’ve been to some of the biggest sporting events in the world, and this was something special.”
It’s not as if the Sixers have just been cooped up in their hotel rooms on this trip with a couple basketball games as bookends. The league has made a concerted effort to get the players out into the community and face-to-face with their obsessed fans.
Joel Embiid appeared at a charity event in Shanghai, sharing some tips about basketball and life (and also swatting away a young man’s shot, as he is wont to do.)
On Sunday, a group from the Sixers that included six players and GM Elton Brand attended an NBA Cares event at Lishan School in Shenzhen, helping to dedicate a new outdoor basketball court and student reading room.
That’s where Fultz tried his hand at ping pong.
Even if it’s a difficult trip as far as far as travel time and jet lag, it’s one the Sixers seem to be enjoying. Embiid, Simmons and Fultz have talked repeatedly about their appreciation for the “insane” fans.
“(Joel) was actually talking about it before, he thinks we should have an All-Star game over here,” Simmons told reporters after the Sixers’ 120-114 win over Dallas on Friday. “I think that would be amazing.”
Does Chang think that could happen one day?
“Hypothetically, it’s a great idea and we would love to have that here,” he said. “I don’t think I’m in a position to sit here and really fully understand what the logistical implications are to get something like that to happen.
“I think the players love it. As you said, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid suggested it would be a great idea to do it. They love it because they see how popular it is, and they see how that helps their own brand grow and develop.”
The Sixers wrap up their trip Monday with their second game against the Mavs, at 8 p.m. Shenzhen time, 8 a.m. on the East Coast, at Shenzhen Universiade Center.
For stars like Simmons and Embiid, it doesn't seem likely that this will be their last time in the country.