Associated Press

‘Our fans are everywhere’: NBA still growing internationally

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — It was the final minute of a preseason game between Philadelphia and Dallas, the 76ers were up by four points with the ball, and thousands of fans were screaming “defense” at the top of their lungs.

A common scene, with an uncommon detail: The game was in China.

“Fantastic,” Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki marveled. “Shows our fans are everywhere.”

That fandom, and the importance of those international eyeballs, just keeps growing.

The NBA has been going overseas to play either preseason or regular season games for 40 years, and the global footprint of the league – not to mention its business interests – continues to expand. The league has opened up 11 international offices, establishing six academies on four continents and started broadcasting games to more than 200 countries and territories.

This season, the NBA heads back to Mexico and England for regular-season contests, after the 76ers and Mavericks played exhibitions in China earlier this month.

“I believe we can be the No. 1 sport in the world,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “When I look at the trajectory of growth, the fact that young people, boys and girls, continue to love this sport, are playing this sport, are engaged in the sport of basketball on social media or with online games, I don’t know what the limit is.”

The numbers touted by the NBA are impressive: 300 million people playing the game for fun in China alone, rapid growth in India over the past decade as that country is on pace to become the world’s most populous by 2025, an estimated 1 billion people around the globe – that’s basically 1 out of every 7 people alive – having some access to the NBA Finals.

And China – which got to cheer one of its countrymen, Ding Yanyuhang, in a preseason game there this year – is the dominant force in all that international traffic.

Marvin Johnson moved from the Miami area to China in 2017 to teach and coach at a basketball academy there. The first thing he saw when he deplaned in Beijing was a massive Li-Ning store, which was basically a shrine to Heat guard Dwyane Wade – who now has a lifetime contract to endorse the Chinese brand’s products.

“Anytime you go out to play basketball at a local court there is a plethora of NBA jerseys being worn by the players,” Johnson said. “If you ask any local playing basketball, they can’t name the players on the local Chinese Basketball Association team – but they can name their favorite players in the NBA in an instant.”

Wade and Heat teammate Udonis Haslem went to China this summer to promote Li-Ning. Everywhere they went, thousands of people were waiting, and that’s now standard for when any big-name NBA player heads to Asia. LeBron James has made an annual trip to China for years. Stephen Curry dropped some Mandarin on fans there when he visited this summer. Kevin Durant played HORSE and didn’t lose. Klay Thompson – or “China Klay” – lost at pop-a-shot.

“Life is too short to be serious all the time,” Thompson said. “You’ve got to be able to show your personality. That’s what I do when I come to China.”

Going to places like China is fun, for certain.

But it’s clearly smart NBA business now as well.

“It’s been that way for years,” Wade said. “They’re not just fans in China. They’re knowledgeable fans. They know everything about the Heat, about me, about UD, the finals, everything. It definitely speaks to the growth of not just our league but the game.”

Curry’s summer might have epitomized the marriage between the NBA and foreign cultures – not to mention cross-promotion.

He didn’t just go to China. He also hit the Philippines, England, France and Japan. He tossed out the ceremonial first pitch at a Japanese baseball game. He shot around with soccer star Neymar. He watched a Premier League game in England.

“One of the best summers that I’ve had,” Curry said.

The idea of going global for regular-season games obviously isn’t exclusive to the NBA.

Baseball opens next season in Japan with a two-game series between Seattle and Oakland. The NFL is playing three regular-season games in London in a three-week span that starts Sunday with – perhaps ironically – Seattle and Oakland beginning the slate there, too. The NHL is sending Florida and Winnipeg for a two-game series next month in Finland.

“We know what the future looks like,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said earlier this month from China, where he took in that 76ers-Mavericks series. “When you look at China, India and Africa, you’ve got about 60 percent of the world’s population in those three places. So we’re putting a lot of time in energy in how we become the No. 1 sport in those countries and those continents.”

In China, where Yao Ming really got things started as far as the NBA growth, the league is well on its way to that No. 1 spot.

It’s not uncommon to see fans watching streams of live NBA games on their phones during the morning commutes to work, since that’s when those games are happening in the U.S. and Canada. A weekly highlight show on Chinese television typically draws an audience of up to 30 million fans.

“I run into people here and they find out I work for the NBA and they say, `I love Steph Curry or Ben Simmons‘ and they tell me different things about the game,” said Derek Chang, the CEO of NBA China. “It’s no different than being back in the U.S. and listening to sports radio in the morning. The intensity, the passion for it, it’s pretty unbelievable. It really is a global game.”

 

Andre Iguodala: I broke my leg last year, but Warriors called it just a bruise

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Kevin Durant was reportedly in agony about not helping the Warriors deep into the playoffs. His teammates were reportedly frustrated he hadn’t returned.

Did Durant – who tore his Achilles just 12 minutes into his return after a month-long absence – feel pressured (internally, externally or both) to rush back?

Durant has yet to speak publicly on the saga, but Golden State forward Andre Iguodala can relate. He missed the final four games of last year’s Western Conference finals against the Rockets and first two games of the NBA Finals with what the team called a “left lateral leg contusion” (fancy word for bruise).

Iguodala on The Breakfast Club:

We have a really good training staff. I’ll give credit where credit’s due. Our training staff is one of the best in the world. And I feel like they got him back. The tough thing is, when you’re an athlete and you’re hurt, everybody is looking at you sideways. And then it being his teammate is harder, because everyone is feeding stuff in our head. “When is KD coming back? When is KD coming back?”

Last year, it happened to me. I missed last three games of the Houston series. It goes to Game 7. We barely get out of that series. And now they’re looking at me like, “When are you coming back?” And I had a fractured leg. But it’s being put out there like, “You’ve got a bone bruise.” I’m like, “Nah, it’s fractured.” So, I’m fighting with the team. I’m fighting with people. I’m fighting with the media. And then my teammates ask me every day, “How you feeling? How you feeling?”

So, with K, he’s getting it from everywhere, too.

What do they always say in sports? “Oh, he’s a tough guy. He plays through injuries.” You’re validated as an athlete if you win a championship or how tough you were. If you sit out, it’s like, “Ah, he’s not tough.”

This is a damning assessment of the Warriors. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but Iguodala is alleging at least one of two things:

1. They misdiagnosed him.

2. They downplayed the extent of the injury publicly.

It could have been both.

A misdiagnosis is obviously troublesome. But downplaying the extent of the injury brings its own problems.

As Iguodala said, that only increased chatter about his return. With so many people talking to him about coming back, it’d be only natural to feel pressure to return. Iguodala is exactly right: Playing through injury gets players praised as tough.

Golden State misleading the public about the injury would also cause issues as the NBA embraces gambling. That opens the door for certain bettors to get inside information.

This sounds a lot like the Durant situation.

The Warriors can talk about how much they care about their players. But a pattern is emerging of injured players being put into peril.

It might be too late with Durant, but Golden State must address this.

The strangest All-NBA ballot

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Remember those odd All-NBA votes? Dwyane Wade, Luke Doncic, Danilo Gallinari and Andre Drummond on the second team, Marvin Bagley III on the third team.

One voter – Kennegh Lau of BesTV, a Chinese outlet – is responsible all those. His ballot:

First team

G: Stephen Curry (Warriors)

G: James Harden (Rockets)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

F: Kevin Durant (Warriors)

C: Joel Embiid (76ers)

Second team

G: Klay Thompson, Klay (Warriors)

G: Dwyane Wade (Heat)

F: Danilo Gallinari, Danilo (Clippers)

F: Luka Doncic, Luka (Mavericks)

C: Andre Drummond, Andre (Pistons)

Third team

G: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

G: Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)

F: Marvin Bagley III (Kings)

F: Pascal Siakam (Raptors)

C: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

A couple other standout All-NBA votes: Michelle Beadle of ESPN voted Eric Gordon third team at guard ahead of Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson, etc. Richard Walker of the Gaston Gazette voted Domantas Sabonis third-team forward ahead of LeBron James (who played more minutes than Sabonis!).

There are outlier votes for every award. You can dig through all the results here. Massimo Lopes Pegna of La Gazzetta Dello Sport (an Italian newspaper) apparently submitted his All-NBA team as his All-Defensive team (though it doesn’t exactly match his actual All-NBA team). Beyond that, these votes aren’t necessarily wrong. The consensus isn’t always right.

But All-NBA voting has taken heightened importance with its super-max connection. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Ballots like Lau’s will increase scrutiny on the system.

That’s an overreaction. There are 100 voters so no single ballot carries too much importance. Again, it’s OK for someone to stray from the consensus.

It’d still be good to reconsider the salary incentives of All-NBA, though. The players who had the best regular seasons – my All-NBA criterion – aren’t necessarily the ones who deserve the highest salaries in years to come. It’s a flawed link, and that goes far beyond Lau’s ballot.

Magic Johnson ready to welcome D’Angelo Russell back to Lakers

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In 2017, then-Lakers president Magic Johnson traded D'Angelo Russell to the Nets and delivered a biting sendoff: “What I needed was a leader.”

Russell wasn’t ready to run a team on the court. His work ethic and maturity off it left plenty to be desired. Most infamously, he alienated his teammates by recording and posting a video of Nick Young discussing sleeping with women other than his fiancé.

But Russell went to Brooklyn and became an All-Star.

So, with rumors swirling about Russell returning to Los Angeles in free agency, Johnson is changing his tune.

Johnson, via Bill Oram of The Athletic:

“Now he’s ready,” Johnson said. “He’s much more mature. I said the only thing, he was immature back then. He could always score, but the guys would never play with him because of what he did (with the Young video). But now all those guys are gone and he’s on another level now.”

This is peak Johnson – talking about players on other teams (no longer tampering), spinning the story to make himself look good and directing the Lakers’ roster without having to take responsibility for it.

There is truth to what Johnson is saying here. Russell is more mature now. It would have been difficult to keep him in a locker room with teammates who didn’t trust him.

But Johnson is also the one who moved Russell rather than betting on his talent. With the right nurturing, Russell could have become a star in Los Angeles in the first place. The Lakers wouldn’t have to use all their cap room to sign him now. They could have already had him.

It’s a little disingenuous for Johnson to present this as him being right all along.

Magic GM John Hammond: ‘We have no idea’ when Markelle Fultz will play

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Markelle Fultz has played just 33 games, the most recent one in November, since the 76ers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2017. Philadelphia traded him to the Magic in February, and he didn’t play at all for Orlando last season.

When will Fultz return?

Magic general manager John Hammond on 96.9 The Game:

He will not play in summer league with us. We didn’t think there was any way that he was going to do that. We didn’t plan on him doing that. So, probably not the place for him right now.

But overall, I can just say that he’s doing well.

He’s working extremely hard. He’s in good shape. His weight is good. His overall body-fat percentage is very good. So, if you look at him, you say, “Wow, he looks great.” So, it’s just a matter of him just continuing to get more comfortable, continuing for him to get himself in a position where he’s ready to step on the floor and help us.

And look, we have no idea when that’s going to be. We’re hoping much, much sooner than later. But once again, we’re trying to do this the best we can, and that’s have that word of patience.

We want to have patience with him and get him ready and put him on the court when he can be most productive.

Patience is probably the right approach, because I don’t know an alternative. But I’m also not sure where patience gets anyone.

Fultz’s issues run so deep. It doesn’t appear time is solving anything. Does Fultz have a long-term injury that’s actually healing? Does he have a mental block that’s actually being addressed? It’d be nice to see some signs of progress.

Unfortunately, that won’t happen in summer league. The next opportunity for Fultz to publicly display his ability will likely be training camp.

But the way this has gone, I have no expectations of Fultz being ready for that, either.