Two years on from last game will NBA return to China?

By Jonathan White
Brooklyn Nets’ Theo Pinson drives against the Los Angeles Lakers' Danny Green near a Chinese national flag during an NBA China Games. Photo: AP

October 12 marks two years since the last NBA game in China when the Los Angeles Lakers played the Brooklyn Nets in Shenzhen.

That game – the second of the 2019 NBA China Games – came two days after the same teams met in Shanghai.

The record will show that the Nets won both games but the preseason tour that will be long remembered for the controversy surrounding a tweet supporting Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters sent by then Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey.

The tweet – which was swiftly deleted – has cast a long shadow, with the NBA’s relationship with China an issue that many in the US have politicised, particularly in contrast to the league’s speaking up on other issues such as Covid-19 vaccinations and Black Lives Matter.

That was all to come – as was scrutiny for the league and its players over Xinjiang cotton and the treatment of China’s Uygur Muslim population in the far western region.

At the time, Morey’s tweet put the NBA China Games in jeopardy and players on both sides feared for their own safety, while the league’s reaction drew criticism in both the US and China.

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While media and promotional events were cancelled surrounding the two games, in the end both went ahead before the players jetted back to the US to face more questions in the fallout from Morey’s tweet.

Now, two years on, the question is if and when might the NBA return to China?

The first visit by an NBA team to the country came back in 1979 when the Washington Bullets played in Beijing and Shanghai as part of their Asia tour.

Fast forward 25 years and the NBA – by that point long established on the CCTV schedules and the most pre-eminent foreign league in the mainland – played its first NBA China Games.

They started with a return for Yao Ming and his Houston Rockets – the franchise would come to be known as “China’s team” before Morey’s tweet – in October 2004 and ran to 25 games in China, including one in Macau, with the last in Shenzhen.

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver was hopeful of an NBA team returning to China when he spoke last February at the All-Star Game.

“Those are issues that haven’t been decided yet,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at his annual All-Star weekend news conference. If the US team were to play, the NBA’s China Games may not take place, he said.

The Covid-19 pandemic saw that there would be no visits for either Team USA or the NBA China Games.

At that stage, barely four months on from the tweet that soured a decades long relationship, the NBA was still off Chinese state television following CCTV pulling broadcasts.

“I know that, from the data we look at, there continues to be enormous interest for the NBA in China,” Silver said. “And my sense is that there will be a return to normalcy fairly soon, but I can’t say exactly when, when it comes to CCTV.”

We know now, two years on, that the NBA briefly returned to CCTV screens for the 2020 Finals – won by the Lakers – but was not shown during last season.

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The Lakers were told to go and celebrate in China by Donald Trump’s lawyer and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“Wow the lakers won the nba championship?” the 76-year-old wrote on Twitter. “How about a big parade in Communist China, Beijing. That’s where it belongs.”

There is no word on whether CCTV will resume broadcasts for the coming season, which begins on October 19.

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The absence of NBA China Games this year and last year are understandable because of the pandemic. China’s control of its borders and strict quarantine have largely seen foreigners kept out.

There have been a few exceptions – South Korea’s women’s football team ahead of their Tokyo 2020 Olympics play-offs in April and the Guam men’s national team ahead of the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 World Cup Qualifying in May.

China’s borders are opening more ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, with test events beginning last week.

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When the excuse of Covid-19 and quarantine disappears then a lack of NBA action will come under more scrutiny.

Other leagues have resumed their international adventures, with the NFL playing a regular season game last weekend in London where the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons played at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

More leagues will follow in due course as part of the “new normal” but the NBA’s return to China – or lack of it – will not be seen as anything but normal as the league invites so much scrutiny.

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