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This export is getting great mileage in China

The basketball-loving generation that Yao Ming spawned has embraced the NBA.

February 18, 2007|Stephen Wade | Associated Press

BEIJING — To understand China's basketball ambitions, look no further than the four Chinese characters that adorn 16 glass backboards in a sprawling sports complex near Tiananmen Square.

"Basketball's new generation surpassing the old," they read.

In the shadow of those boards, 18-year-old Li Boyang is the next generation -- the one Yao Ming spawned. He speaks English, lugs a scuffed orange basketball and happily hands over 15 yuan -- about $2 -- to play an hour of half-court at the Dongdan Sports Center.

"When Yao Ming made the NBA, it started to get us interested in basketball," said Li, dressed in shiny white sneakers and a baggy, oversized, flannel-like shirt. "For many of us, it was Yao."

American missionaries brought basketball to China in the 1890s, but the Houston Rockets' 7-foot-6 center has converted the game into street cool. He's also generated a few urban myths among teenage boys, like this one: Playing basketball can make you taller.

"When I was 7, I wasn't really tall," Li said, drawing a hand across his waist to show how short he was. "Playing basketball is one reason I think I've grown. I really believe this."

Li stands about 6 feet -- much shorter than Yao, but taller than the average Chinese.

Called "lanqiu" (pronounced lahn-chew) in Chinese, basketball in China represents America's most successful sporting export. The NFL has lost money trying to transplant its game abroad -- mostly in Europe as NFL Europa. And Major League Baseball has dented few nontraditional markets looking for new revenue.

But the NBA already has a 50-member staff -- its largest abroad -- and a game with deep roots.

"It's the No. 1 market for us outside the United States," said Heidi Ueberroth, who directs the NBA's international business. "We've seen double-digit growth over the past several years -- and as far out as we can project. I can assure you it is very profitable."

She said the NBA generates about 10% of its $3-billion revenue outside the United States, and China is the biggest overseas contributor.

The NBA boasts 20,000 stores in China that carry its merchandise. China's biggest broadcaster, state-run CCTV, airs four NBA games weekly, and 50 other stations across the country telecast games.

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