It may not have the same cachet as a Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics match-up, but the Guangsha Lions' double overtime season-opening victory over the Tianjin Gold Lions on Sunday may be a sign of good things to come for the Chinese Basketball Assn.
Blessed by the NBA lockout, the struggling league has opened its checkbook to American free agents that should help snare a larger following in the biggest basketball-loving country in the world with an estimated 300 million fans.
One of the newest additions, Wilson Chandler, scored 43 points and grabbed 22 rebounds to lead the Golden Bulls on opening day. The former Denver Nugget, who signed for $1.7 million, averaged only 15.3 points per game last season in the U.S.
“Chandler seemed to have basketball god in him when he beat Tianjin all by himself. It was so easy for him. Just like a practice,” wrote a micro-blogger named Gechao on the popular Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo.
Other arrivals include another former Nugget, J.R. Smith, who inked a record $3-million contract to play for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls and 11-year NBA veteran Kenyon Martin, who signed a $2.6-million deal to play for the Flying Tigers in the western province of Xinjiang, better known for its ethnic strife and government crackdowns.
The Washington Wizards’ Yi Jianlian is also returning to his home country to play for the defending CBA champions, the Guangdong Tigers.
They join established stars in the league such as former Dallas Maverick James Singleton and former two-time all-star Stephon Marbury, who has an almost cult-like following in China. The Beijing Ducks’ starting point guard has more than 140,000 subscribers to his micro-blog, where he posts pictures of himself riding the city’s subway.
Already, the CBA has raised its number of corporate sponsors from 16 to 22 this season, and the national sports broadcaster CCTV5 has increased the number of games it shows each week from three to four to make up for the lost weekly NBA game.
That’s a huge boost for a largely hapless league that was reportedly losing an average of $18 million a season and had to cut the 2009-10 season short by 18 games to save about $9 million (the recent contracts handed to former NBA players were provided by a handful of richer teams that have strong sponsors such as banks and coal mine bosses).
China has long been mined by the NBA and sneaker companies for its market potential. Players such as Kobe Bryant often visit on promotional tours. Ron Artest, Shane Battier and Jason Kidd endorse Chinese sneaker brand Peak. One of the main reasons Marbury decided to play here was to push sales of his footwear line, Starbury.
It remains to be seen if more NBA players are willing to make the move east. Bryant was rumored in August to have been eyeing China, and Guangsha is reportedly wooing free agent center Tyson Chandler.
Those that do come will have to overcome vast cultural differences that famously confronted not only Marbury but Bonzi Wells. The former Portland Trailblazer was averaging more than 40 points a game for the Shanxi Brave Dragons in 2009 but never returned to the team after taking holiday only 14 games into the season.
“It was a big cultural shock for me,” he later explained.
Photo: The Chinese basketball team's captain, Wang Zhizhi, is thrown into the air as the team celebrates its win in the gold medal basketball game against South Korea in the Asian Games last year. Wang plays for the Bayi Rockets in the Chinese Basketball Assn. Credit: Wong Maye-E/Associated Press.