NBA Commissioner David Stern with Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant and Chinese children in Shanghai in 2013. Photo: AP
Jonathan White
Jonathan White

David Stern took NBA to China, other leagues still playing catch-up

  • Commissioner’s move to play games, push broadcasts with CCTV and develop Chinese interest paid off
  • NBA still streets ahead despite Houston Rockets’ Hong Kong protest crisis

David Stern liked to tell the story of travelling China in 1990 when a local guide in Xian revealed her favourite team.

“You know, I am a great fan of the team of the red oxen,” she told Stern and his wife, Dianne. Cue confusion then smiles on realising it was the Chinese translation for the Chicago Bulls.

Nowadays, the whole of China knows the Zhijiage Gongniu, as they are known in Mandarin, and Stern is as more to credit for that than anyone – even their star player.

“Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today,” Michael Jordan, the six-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls and talisman of that 1990 team, said after Stern’s death at the age of 77 on New Year’s Day.

“He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before.”

Jordan was not the only one to pay tribute to the man who took the game to China at a time when other sports were naive to the possibilities and potential the country offered.

Not only did Stern get in earlier than everyone else but he forced the door open himself.

It was Stern who hung around the lobby of CCTV in Beijing to press NBA tapes into the hands of executives who were unwilling to meet him. Stern gave away the rights when they were earning millions in other territories.

The deal actually cost them money. Having agreed to split the advertising but failing to secure any, Stern sent a cheque to China anyway for their “half”.

Stern’s relationship with Chinese basketball had started earlier, although it was in similarly giving mood.

In 1985 he welcomed Mou Zouyun, known as the “godfather of Chinese basketball”, to the US and within weeks his offer of “one day hosting the Chinese national team” was taken up. Stern managed to get six NBA teams to take them on during their trip. Jordan and the Bulls were among them and coming up against Jordan was like playing someone from “another universe”, according to China’s Wang Fei.

Other Chinese players would later experience playing the best in the world but hold their own. Yao Ming became the poster child of the Stern era and he has been full of praise for the commissioner over the years.

David Stern at a press conference before an NBA preseason exhibition game in Beijing in 2009. Photo: AFP

“I think he is the greatest person in NBA history,” Yao Ming, the former star Houston Rockets center from China, said when Stern retired in 2014. “He made everything happen.”

Perhaps Yao’s talent and height would have caught the attention if someone other than Stern was in charge but it is hard not to think that the road to Yao becoming the No 1 draft pick and eight-time NBA All-Star started with Stern in the CCTV lobby.

Yao has spoken of the importance of watching the 1994 NBA Finals as a 14-year-old, the first year they were broadcast live rather than on a tape delay.

The relationship between China and the NBA has only intensified since the Yao years.

Jeremy Lin’s “Linsanity” period generated as much interest in the mainland as it did in the US. The Taiwanese-American’s breakout was something that pleased Stern and Lin paid tribute to the former commissioner on Twitter.

“RIP David Stern. Condolences to your family,” Lin wrote. “Thanks for pouring so much into making the NBA an amazing league that I could play in for nine years, as well as growing the beautiful game of basketball to the world!”

Lin now plays in the Chinese Basketball Association with the Beijing Ducks, while Yao is the league’s commissioner. Another former New York Knicks star who blazed the trail to Beijing, Stephon Marbury, delivered three CBA titles to the Ducks and now coaches at their rivals, the Royal Fighters.

Basketball has gone truly global and Stern’s vision was key to that. NBA players such as Dwyane Wade and Klay Thompson being sponsored by Chinese brands is further evidence, as are the promotional tours made by players in the off-season.

It’s fitting that Stern could still see sense. He praised successor Adam Silver’s response to the crisis that followed Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting the Hong Kong protests.

Stern said he expected “we would go back to business as usual”, as it would not be smart for China to end its relationship with the NBA. It looks like another one he got right.

China’s history with basketball is almost as old as the sport itself but the boom in basketball, even in the CBA, has all been post Stern. He has created the blueprint for everyone else: playing games there is now the norm and the investment in grass roots has been copied by football, while every sport talks of wanting its own Yao Ming to crack China.

They would all be better off trying to find their own David Stern.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Stern made the NBA star in China