There was a time when the prospect of the NBA reaching these kinds of heights seemed impossible.
So as Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts looked out over the South China Sea from the top of a Ritz-Carlton hotel in Hong Kong, enjoying the view along with the rest of the defending champs during a week-long visit to China, he couldn’t help but reflect on those days. It had been a quarter century since the global growth started with a little NBA office in this picturesque city of 7.3 million, and no one – Welts included – saw this coming.
“We’re on the 118th floor of the tallest building in Hong Kong, and (Warriors forward) Draymond (Green) is over there taking pictures, and (point guard) Shaun (Livingston) and his wife and baby are taking pictures, and (center) Zaza (Pachulia) is kind of taking it all in,” said Welts, the 62-year-old who played a pivotal role in the league’s growth during a 17-year run as a league executive under former commissioner David Stern. “You look around, and just say, like, ‘This is the NBA.’ It’s remarkable to see where this all is today.
“We had set up our office for NBA Asia in Hong Kong, and we had … one office with three people trying to run Asia, right? So that included China, Japan, and everywhere else. It was the wild west. We’re trying to take these calls with the time difference from New York, just trying to figure out how to get office furniture, (and) how to make sure somebody had health care in Hong Kong was a big enough challenge. It was really as Mom and Pop a start-up as there ever could be.”
In 1992, about the time Welts was assuming the third-in-command position of executive vice president and a young attorney named Adam Silver was starting his rise to the commissioner's office, the NBA opened its first Asia office in Hong Kong with the hopes of reaching an untapped market. Stern and Welts had celebrated in the then-commissioner’s office in the mid-1980s when they got word that games would be played on a three-week tape delay in Italy. The focus was on Europe at the time, and later Japan, before China became a priority.
As Silver, now the commissioner, told USA TODAY Sports over the phone, the NBA had more staying power in China than some envisioned.
“Although some people predicted that when Yao retired that we would lose popularity, in fact post Yao Ming we’re even more popular than when he was playing,” said Silver, who is expected to be in Shanghai for Sunday's tipoff. “We’ve been embraced by the Chinese government, and the people – I believe – in large part because of the values of our game. Those values, like respect and teamwork and hard work (mean) the game itself resonates with the people of China.”
Now, there’s this:
The league saw a spike in Chinese interest during the Yao Ming era, continued to grow here since his retirement in 2011 and now has offices in Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei.
More than 700 million viewers watched NBA basketball on television in China last season, with games also streamed by media partners like CCTV, BesTV and TenCent. Basketball, played by approximately 300 million people here, is the No. 1 team sport in China. The NBA is the most popular sports league on social media in China, with more than 136 million followers.
With this week’s pair of preseason games between the Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves in Shenzhen and Shanghai both selling out in an hour, the NBA has now hosted sellouts in all 24 of its games in China. The Washington Bullets, in late August of 1979, were the first team to play in China. Fourteen teams have played here in all.
“Our best days are definitely ahead of us," Silver said. "I think the reason for that is that while the growth has continued … when additional Chinese players enter the league, and especially top notch players, I think we’re going to have (another) growth spurt in China.”
That next frontier, as Silver admits, has proved frustrating.
While there will never be another Yao, the dearth of NBA-caliber talent coming from this country of nearly 1.4 billion people is still startling. Houston Rockets rookie Zhou Qi, a 21-year-old who was taken 43rd overall in 2016 and signed a multi-year deal in early July, is the only current player from China. The last Chinese player to show any real promise was Yi Jianlian, the 29-year-old who played for four teams from 2007 to 2012 and is now playing with the Guangdong Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.
The NBA seems to be doing all it can.
Last year, it opened three NBA Academies in China that are geared toward developing the top male and female prospects. League officials worked with the Chinese Ministry of Education on a basketball curriculum that incorporates fitness and hoops and will reach 2,000 schools this year. The first NBA Basketball School of China is opening in 2019. Yao, who owns the Shanghai Sharks of the CBA, remains integral to this push.
“Our response to our disappointment, and the lack of top-tier development, was that rather than sit on our hands and bemoan it, let’s work with the CBA and play an active role (in development),” Silver said. “With Yao Ming, and the academies now throughout China to work with young talent, I believe it is a numbers game, that given the amount of basketball being played by young top basketball players in China ... and the focus they bring to bear, I’m confident we’ll see results.”
Yet even if that doesn’t transpire, Silver & Co., have already seen more than they imagined.
“The embrace this country has given the NBA, I think, is so far beyond what anybody could have anticipated when we set out on this adventure,” Welts said. “The way the sport has resonated here is just different than anywhere else outside of North America and the world.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick