The NBA is taking a page out of Major League Baseball’s book of international development. While numbers lag in America as far as youth playing and sticking with baseball as an athletic option, MLB has continued to support and build elaborate baseball academies and facilities abroad, putting tons of money into developing a pipeline of talent in the Caribbean and Spanish-speaking countries.
Those programs have proven successful, as Dominican and other Latino players have become the bloodline of MLB’s existence and popularity.
With 1.4 billion potential basketball fans walking around the world's most populous nation, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver once said, “Nothing can be No. 1 at anything in the world unless it is No. 1 in China.”
So now, the NBA is turning up its focus on international player development and global expansion.
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According to NBA.com, league commissioner Adam Silver announced the launch of NBA Academies, an international elite development initiative that will consist of a network of elite training centers around the world to develop top international male and female prospects.
The first three academies will open in the Chinese cities of Urumqi, Jinan and Hangzhou. The continued international reverence for recent Hall of Fame inductee Yao Ming, who was the first Chinese superstar to grace the NBA hardwood, undoubtedly influenced the NBA’s decision to begin its international program in China, where basketball is king.
An estimated 100 million fans there watch professional basketball league games regularly and NBA squads play exhibition games there.
“Basketball is a part of the Chinese culture,” said Meng Wang, an analyst and commentator for Tencent, which has grown into China’s largest and most most used Internet service portal. “It is a game that has long been enjoyed by the population, even before all of this.”
The academies are the future, but right now, the NBA continues to establish great relationships with China.
The Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans met last Wednesday and Sunday for a pair of preseason games in Shanghai as part of the 10th edition of the China Games.
NBA.com took us inside the venue: "Just 14 years after native son Yao Ming was chosen with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft by the Rockets, as a 7-foot-6 bridge between diverse cultures, to an American eye, there is a sense of familiarity inside the Oriental Sports Arena, where 16,000 fans packed the stands on Friday to watch informal practices, 3-point and free throw shooting competitions and even a dance contest between rookie players. From the rock music blaring the from the speakers, dancers gyrating, tumblers flipping and cartoonish mascots performing their comic routines, it might as well be any NBA arena from Miami to Portland."
The NCAA, taking a clue from big brother, joined the Chinese international flow in 2015. Washington and Texas kicked off the college basketball season in Shanghai last year — the first regular season NCAA basketball game ever played there. Foreign policy.com said in April of 2016, "There are now more than 500 foreign players on Division 1 basketball rosters this year, up 33 percent from five years ago."
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“Nothing is more important than to grow the game of basketball here in China,” Silver told nba.com. “We’re thankful for the terrific reception we’ve had in China. It’s very important that we give back as well. One of our means of giving back is to help develop elite players here. Elite players that can play in the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association), elite players who can bring glory to their country through the national team and elite players who maybe can play in the National Basketball Association one day.”
The training centers will provide NBA-trained coaches who will oversee the development of the prospects on and off the court. The coaches will provide the Chinese players with guidance and support both during and after their basketball careers. Each center will showcase under-16 and under-18 teams in elite competition throughout the year.
“We want these players to have the opportunity to play against other elite players,” said Silver. “What we know from our NBA experience that in order to develop the best players, in addition to the wonderful training they’re getting already here in China, they need to play against top-notch competition. That’s what we’re going to do as an important measure to see more great Chinese players coming into the NBA.”
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While global expansion has long been the next logical step for the NBA, there are plenty of neighborhoods right here in America that could use an elite training facility with NBA-level coaching where there is also an emphasis on life skills and post career endeavors.
Hopefully this will be a model that the NBA can institute all over the United States, especially in those underserved and underprivileged communities.
In any event, it is a huge step for Chinese basketball and with the NBA’s continued obsession with European players, the game is definitely trying to internationalize and surpass soccer as the No. 1 sport on the planet.