July in Las Vegas brings scorching weather (it is supposed to be 109 tomorrow) and the NBA Summer League. Summer League, where college standouts make their pro debut and undrafted players fight for a position, is a nirvana for basketball fans: there are ten games a day and a general admission tickets costs $35. Stars abound—“Look over there, it’s Lebron James,” “Did you see Vince Carter next to our section just now?” This year, summer league featured Duke standout Zion Williamson, and, for the first time in its history, tickets for the opening day of games were sold out. I made sure to get there early to secure a good seat.
Another game that day featured the Chinese national team. They got annihilated. Inept on offense, unable to drive the lane, devoid of any ideas about how to create space, and ice-cold from three, the men’s national team lost to the Miami Heat by 40. Zhou Qi, the former Houston Rocket, had a stupefying plus minus rating of -35 (the difference between a team’s total scoring versus the opponent’s total scoring when a player is in the game). Maybe they were still jet-lagged. The next day they played better, with more purpose and movement on offense, but lost to the Sacramento Kings by about 20. Then, surprisingly, team China beat the Charlotte Hornets 84-80. Zhou Qi came to life, knocking down several threes, while Fang Shuo and Guo Ailun were able to get into the paint with more frequency. They play the Milwaukee Bucks later today.
Given the tension in U.S.-China relations, participation of the Chinese national team in Summer League is surely a good thing. As Bill Bishop of the Sinocism Newsletter recently tweeted “If only the NBA could lead the way for US-China engagement and a better relationship.” A recent article in Sports Illustrated profiling Yao Ming, now head of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), makes this engagement and cooperation quite vivid. This passage in particular stood out to me:
“The basketball power brokers gathered at the posh Ritz-Carlton Pudong, overlooking Shanghai’s shimmering Bund waterfront. In October 2017, less than eight months after taking the job as Chinese Basketball Association chairman, Yao had requested a meeting with Silver and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum while the NBA executives visited for the Global Games. He wasted little time getting down to business. As Tatum recalls, “One of the first things he said was, ‘O.K., I want all of your operations manuals'”—documents like the NBA’s constitution, bylaws and collective bargaining agreement. All things the CBA still lacked.”
“We’ve shared lots of information,” says Tatum. “Everything that he’s asked for.”
With so much news focused on Chinese intellectual property theft, it is stunning to read of the opposite case: The CBA asked for what are secret materials and the NBA willingly turned them over.
But sitting at some of the games, I wondered whether basketball is an area that will continue to be a space of cooperation or if the deterioration in U.S.-China relations simply hasn’t reached this sphere yet and it is only a matter of time. A few possibilities came to mind.
Perhaps the crisis in Xinjiang will touch the NBA. In some ways, it is surprising that no reporter, as far as I know, has asked Steph Curry or Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, who both have multiple sponsorship deals in China, about their thoughts concerning the ongoing detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. I have no idea how Curry or Thompson might respond to a question on Xinjiang. If they did speak out, would the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounce them for interfering in China’s domestic affairs? Would the government then encourage Chinese companies to drop them as spokesmen? Would NBA exhibition games in China be canceled?
Perhaps a small-scale incident, given increased tensions, will lead to a larger one. Nearly eight years have passed since the Georgetown University men’s basketball team got into a fight with the People’s Liberation Army team, Bayi. Victor Cha, a Georgetown professor and former NSC staffer who was with the team, recounted that tensions were smoothed over quite quickly. As he wrote, “this was a scrap between youthful athletes, not between countries.” Of course, he was right. But the next sentence in the piece reminds us of the stakes: “The direction of US-China relations will be determined less by a basketball game than by contemporaneous events like Biden’s meetings in China the same week of our trip.” When contemporaneous events are as seemingly dire as they are today, a single basketball game may matter. Simply put, 2019 or 2021 is not 2011. Would a similar incident today be handled with such dexterity by both sides? Or, what if, down the road, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver mentions in the SI piece, there is a meaningful series between the NBA champion and the CBA champion but a fight or altercation breaks out?
Perhaps, and I can’t believe I am actually writing this, CCTV or Tencent would reduce or even stop showing NBA games. If the Chinese government can limit the number of foreign movies and TV shows that come into the country, and stop students from taking AP world history exams, they could surely take such a drastic step. Of course, I doubt that would happen, if only because it would likely lead to a lot of discontent among 18-35 year old males, a demographic most governments aren’t keen to upset.
Sitting in the stands the last few days, the U.S-China trade war, Huawei, the South China Sea dispute and the general deterioration in the relationship between the two countries seemed remote. Everyone was much more interested in catching a glimpse of Zion or digesting the news that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are headed to the Clippers. I hope basketball and sports in general remain an area of cooperation and engagement, but fear they won’t.