Basketball Without Borders, the NBA's outreach programme for young basketball players, had come to Asia for the first time, and the atmosphere on day one in Beijing's Olympic Centre was tense, expectant. Everyone held their breath. Already seated were some of the biggest names in the world of basketball, people like Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs, Bostjan Nachbar of the New Orleans Hornets and Samuel Dalembert and Kyle Korver from the Philadelphia 76ers. Young players from all over Asia seated on the floor of the basketball arena nodded respectfully in the direction of the big guns, journalists fiddled with their notebooks and adjusted their cameras. Chinese officials and American coaches from the National Basketball Association read off their clipboards. We were waiting for Yao Ming. It was only when this huge figure - star centre of the Houston Rockets, three-time NBA All-Star and the tallest player in the league at 2.29 metres - shuffled onto court and gingerly sat down that the basketball camp could officially be declared open. There had been speculation about whether the king of Chinese basketball would make it or not, after he had surgery on his ankle in Los Angeles last month. Once he sat down, with amazing delicacy considering his size, reporters from all over the mainland were keen to have a piece of the story. The media frenzy could begin in earnest. Since Yao's entry to the NBA in 2002, hoop dreams on the mainland have centred on this most beloved of native sons and he has done more to popularise the sport in China than any advertising campaign could have done. 'Lots of people understand the game in China and want to watch the best games,' said NBA Asia spokeswoman Cheong Sau Ching. 'Yao Ming has been the ignition. Last year we played two games in China and now sponsors understand that they can use this as a marketing opportunity too,' said Cheong. The NBA has made no secret of its ambitions in China. Last year, superstar Michael Jordan came and two NBA games were played in China. The league's presence on TV is significant - six NBA games are shown a week in China, a lot even by comparison to the US. Around 30 million viewers watch at least one NBA game a week in China. It's difficult to overstate the role that Yao plays in Chinese society - his status is something approaching secular sainthood. He was recently named a model worker by the Communist Party and when he joined the NBA he reportedly promised to give half his salary to the Chinese sports authorities. A photograph of Yao Ming wiping away the tear of a little girl, as HIV/Aids orphans and other children affected by the illness told their story at a centre in Beijing, taken during the camp, made a huge impact in China and wider afield. Yao's work for raising public awareness of HIV/Aids has been hugely successful in China, all the more significant when you consider how taboo the illness remains at many levels. Yao has filled out in the last two seasons, he looks strong. His confidence and his ease at dealing with the media are remarkable. At one point Yao was asked if he was jealous of Tony Parker, who recently celebrated San Antonio's second NBA title in three years. Quick as a flash, Yao turned the question on its head. Aware that the French point guard is also famous for his off-court romance with Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, he asked the awe-struck reporters: 'Do you mean his success in the NBA or about his girlfriend?' Basketball has a great heritage in China and has survived all kinds of political upheavals. It was brought by missionaries to Tianjin, played before and after the revolution in 1949. And probably was played during the revolution too. China has long been on the NBA's radar - the league made its first visit to the mainland in 1979 with a trip by the Washington Bullets, who have since become the Washington Wizards. It's easy to see why the NBA is choosing right now to mount a major push to build the popularity of basketball in China. China's economy is growing more powerfully than a golden-era Michael Jordan slam-dunk and the emerging middle class have money to spend on basketball. China's own basketball league, the China Basketball Association, has about 12 teams, but it lacks the TV marketing muscle and the attendances to really pull in the sponsors. And there is precious little else around to capture the sporting imagination at the moment. Ongoing, interminable tales of woe and corruption from the football league have given a sour taste to the world of soccer. Motor racing is a big deal in China since Formula One was inaugurated in Shanghai last year, but there are still no Chinese drivers to capture the imagination. There are still three years to go until the Olympics, which leaves a perfect window of opportunity for basketball to establish itself. The NBA has notched up some important sponsorships on the mainland including Red Bull, China Mobile and the sports retailer Li Ning. China is vital to keep the league thriving, something the players are aware of. 'China is very important with lots of people watching here. It's important to establish the sport here as many people want to play. Basketball is truly global,' said Parker. Yeoh Choo Hock, vice-president of the Asia basketball association, Fiba, which was supporting the event, showed just how important the NBA support is to boosting the sport in China and in the region generally. 'I told the young players that this is a once-off opportunity for them to learn from the experience of these players and I want to thank the NBA coaches and players who have made the sacrifice of their time to help the NBA Asia players,' he said. The NBA's revenues in China are still relatively small compared to the US$3 billion revenues generated every year. NBA China's managing director Mark Fischer has described the private league's revenue growth and overall presence in China as 'explosive' and 'exponential', as a 'perfect storm'. But he is careful to emphasise the social awareness dimension to the NBA's activities in China. It may one of the biggest sports in the world, but it's still a ball game at the end of the day. 'With popularity comes social responsibility and Basketball Without Borders is a wonderful way of giving something back,' said Fischer. And it's hard to be cynical about a project like this. The three-day camp had an impressive cross-section of players from across the region - 51 players from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Singapore as well as Kazakhstan, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Philippines, Qatar and Jordan. The celebrity players took the camp seriously, working hard to help the young players improve their dribbling, passing and shooting skills. And the coaches clearly connected well with the rookies. And watching the experts put the 2.10m Su Wei through his paces, you realise that it might just lead to another basketball king from the mainland.