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Popularity of NBA in China seems to create endless options

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BEIJING (AP) Kobe Bryant went to China for the first time in 1998, making the trip to Beijing to help operate an instructional basketball clinic for about a dozen kids. The local coaches working with him didn’t know a lot about the game. Barely anyone noticed that an NBA player was in town.

Basketball wasn’t a big deal in China.

And then everything changed very quickly.

The footprint of the NBA has grown at an extremely rapid pace over the last two decades in China, where more than 500 million people watched games last season and where one new streaming deal alone will pump $1.5 billion into the league’s coffers over the next five years.

“When I first came here, I never thought the game in China would get to be this big,” Bryant said. “But it has. And it’s not going to stop.”

The possibilities seem endless.

Could there be an NBA team in China despite the travel that would be involved? Might there be two-way player contracts between the NBA and the Chinese Basketball Association? What about the NBA constructing a team to play in China or the Chinese sending a team for a full season in the U.S.?

Farfetched as all that may sound, keep in mind that 20 years ago no one envisioned the NBA-China relationship to be this big – or that it would keep growing after Yao Ming’s run with the Houston Rockets ended eight years ago. The NBA has academies in China now, and the Chinese national team returned to the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this year.

“It’s a good question,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “I think the next step will probably come when the next Yao Ming comes. That would take it to a new level, more Chinese players to reach the NBA and make an impact.”

The marriage between the NBA and the world’s most populous country is stronger than ever. NBA officials say more than 300 million Chinese people play the game and 40 million are registered to play the 2K video game. Thousands showed up this summer just to watch the sons of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James play exhibitions with the rest of their high school teammates.

A trade war is happening between the U.S. and China, political tensions are escalating between the countries and it could impact the products of the league’s business partners . But the game itself continues to thrive.

“I think sports transcends politics and I hope the NBA can continue to connect fans globally,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “I don’t have any reason to think our relationship won’t continue to be positive.”

Nothing seems to be able to derail the NBA’s popularity.

The team that the U.S. sent to the World Cup in China didn’t feature the NBA’s biggest stars, yet drew sellout crowds for each of its first six games. U.S. coach Gregg Popovich was begged for autographs and selfies everywhere he went.

“We’ve known for a long time how big basketball has become in China, of course, but all over the world,” Popovich said. “It’s an international deal now. There are so many great players in so many countries. It’s not a secret.”

Stars like James, Stephen Curry, and James Harden have a trip to China on their annual schedules – and when Wade, the recently retired guard who has a lifetime contract with Chinese shoe company Li-Ning, visited this summer one of his events had to be halted after about 10 minutes because the mall where it was happening was overflowing with people.

Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz has been to China twice this summer, once to promote his brand, the second time for the World Cup with USA Basketball. He sees it becoming an annual stop for him, too – and believes there is no ceiling for the game globally.

“Man, I couldn’t tell you,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s going to be even bigger and it’s not going to be just China. It’s going to be many more countries. The (relationship) between the NBA and China has been huge since I was a kid and it can only take off from there … because the passion and love is so strong.”

It’s not a one-sided relationship; China sees reason to invest in the NBA.

Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, agreed this summer to buy the remaining 51% that he didn’t already own of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center from Mikhail Prokhorov in deals worth about $3.4 billion. In 2016, Lizhang Jiang, a businessman from Shanghai, bought 5% of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a stake he sold earlier this year.

China also takes immense pride in players like Klay Thompson wearing Chinese brands on the court. (Thompson has a 10-year deal with Chinese shoe company Anta for a reported $80 million.) And China sent its national team to NBA Summer League this past July primarily to get ready for the World Cup, but also for exposure on the NBA stage.

“I think it’s good for our players and good for the team,” China coach Li Nan said of playing in Las Vegas. “I think it’s good for everyone.”

The NBA has opened three basketball academies in China and has seen very quick success with academies in Asia and Africa. The international influence on the league was more present this past season than ever.

The NBA MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is from Greece. The rookie of the year, Luka Doncic, is from Slovenia. The most improved player, Pascal Siakam, is from Cameroon. The defensive player of the year, Rudy Gobert, is from France. The All-NBA center, Nikola Jokic, is from Serbia.

“This past summer, an NBA Academy prospect from China signed a contract with a National Basketball League team in Australia, becoming the first male NBA Academy prospect from China to sign a contract with a professional team,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “And on the women’s side, Han Xu from the New York Liberty, who trained at the NBA Academy in Shandong, China, became the first NBA Academy prospect to be drafted into the NBA or WNBA.”

It hasn’t happened overnight.

Former Commissioner David Stern struck a deal with Chinese television to show games on tape-delay three decades ago, and once toyed with the idea of some sort of NBA-sponsored or branded league in China. Teams embrace the chance to play the annual preseason games in China because he exposure is worth the jet lag.

“When I have 76ers gear on and I walk through Shanghai, walk through Shenzhen, if I had a nickel for every time somebody said `Trust the process’ in perfect English I wouldn’t be standing here working,” Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil said, referencing the team’s motto during its rebuilding phase of recent years. “We’re very much a part of the fabric of China.”

None of this seemed possible 20 years ago or so, when Bryant made that first trip. Now fans can’t get enough.

“When you come here, you feel it from the fans, their energy, people at the hotel, people just walking around,” Kerr said in China during the World Cup. “Everybody just seems very excited about basketball.”

Same goes for the game’s future in China.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Doc Rivers: Lou Williams expected to join Clippers for restart

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers says Lou Williams is expected to join the team for the NBA’s restart in Florida.

Williams has described himself as “50-50” on whether he would finish out the pandemic-interrupted season because he didn’t want to distract from the ongoing push for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody.

“Obviously, up until we get on the plane, anything can happen,” Rivers said during a video conference with media Wednesday. “But I do expect Lou to be with us. I would be very surprised if he’s not.”

Williams, last year’s Sixth Man of the Year, was averaging 18.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.7 assists in 60 games before the league shut down in March due to the coronavirus.

Rivers said he doesn’t think any of the Clippers are opting out from resuming the season. The team heads to Orlando, Florida, on July 8.

“But listen, it is their choice and we support that,” the coach said. “There are so many reasons for everybody to play but there are also very valid reasons for guys to opt out. I don’t think many will. I think they are all invested in what we are trying to do. But again you don’t hold it against anyone on any team. This is extraordinary times and we just have to support each other.”

Guard Landry Shamet echoed other players’ feelings about traveling to Florida at a time when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in certain states.

“It’s obviously a concern, but we’re in the best possible situation and scenario to combat that,” he said. “If there’s a scenario where you feel more comfortable it would be being in a bubble. That’s as controlled as any environment can be, so that’s one positive that I’ve been thinking about.”

Rivers added, “I’m hoping when we get to the bubble it becomes the safest place in America.”

LeBron James’ voting rights group converting arenas into polling places

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ATLANTA (AP) — If basketball icon LeBron James gets his way, NBA arenas and other sports venues around the country will be mega polling sites for the November general election.

James and his voting rights group, formed this spring with other black athletes and entertainers, are joining with other professional basketball leaders and Michigan’s top elections official to push for mega voting sites to accommodate in-person balloting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

More Than A Vote, the James organization dedicated to maximizing Black turnout in November, shared its plans with The Associated Press on Wednesday after the Detroit Pistons became the second NBA franchise to announce plans to use its arena for voting later this year. In Georgia, Fulton County elections officials this week approved the Atlanta Hawks’ proposal to use State Farm Arena as a polling site. Plans call for the arena to serve as a countywide early voting site ahead of Election Day.

The idea, which comes after Kentucky used large facilities in its June 23 primary, is to use large spaces that allow for in-person voting while still enforcing social distancing guidelines. It also underscores the attention on the mechanics of voting amid the pandemic, with the intensity already reflected in both President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden warning that state and local officials have the power to “corrupt” the election.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called her “partnership” with the Pistons an “blueprint for other teams and leagues seeking to advance our common goal of protecting access to the vote for all.”

Lloyd Pierce, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, said the arrangement in his city ensures “high turnout” in a safe environment. Benson, Pierce and David Fizdale, former New York Knicks head coach, will advise NBA franchises and arena management entities around the country on how to replicate the existing deals.

The Milwaukee Bucks also confirmed they are willing to use their home arena as a voting site in the most populous city in the key battleground of Wisconsin.

The coordinated push is a turnabout, of sorts, in the often-partisan jousting over voting procedures.

Some Democrats panned Kentucky elections officials for limiting in-person June primary voting in the state’s two most populous counties to Louisville’s Exposition Center and the University of Kentucky football stadium in Lexington. Voting rights advocates argued in federal court that the plan, part of culling voting sites statewide amid coronavirus concerns, would harm minority voters.

A federal judge rejected their claims, and voting proceeded without the melee that some advocates had forecast.

Now, Benson, a Democrat, is pushing the arena model not as an example of potential voter suppression, but a way to fight it. “One of our greatest challenges in protecting voters’ access to democracy this November is identifying accessible locations where citizens can safely vote in person,” she said.

Amid COVID, that could outweigh potential logistical difficulties of large sites. Lines for such venues can still be long — just as with normal polling locations — as was seen in Lexington at some points on primary day. Voters also could face traffic jams or public transit hiccups given the number of people involved. General elections also have considerably larger turnout than primaries.

Nonetheless, there’s a growing bipartisan push for large-venue voting. NFL executive Scott Pioli last week presented the National Association of Secretaries of State a plan for widespread use of professional and college sports facilities.

James’ group is officially nonpartisan. But the NBA star has been open about its emphasis on the Black community, where Trump faces intense opposition for his white identity politics. James has not endorsed Biden, but he endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.

In Milwaukee, meanwhile, the Bucks owners, the Lasry family, are major Democratic Party donors. Bucks executive Alex Lasry helped lead the effort that landed the Democratic National Convention in the city.

Missouri man freed from prison with help from WNBA’s Moore

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A Missouri man was freed from prison Wednesday after a county prosecutor declined to retry his case, punctuating years of work by WNBA star Maya Moore and other supporters who argued he was falsely convicted of burglary and assault charges.

Moore was on hand when Jonathan Irons, 40, walked out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center. She clapped as Irons approached a group of people waiting for his release. She then dropped to her knees at one point before joining a group hug around Irons.

He had been serving a 50-year prison sentence stemming from the non-fatal shooting of a homeowner in the St. Louis area when Irons was 16. But a judge threw out his convictions in March, citing a series of problems with the case, including a fingerprint report that had not been turned over to Irons’ defense team, according to The New York Times.

The Missouri attorney general’s office unsuccessfully appealed the judge’s decision, and the lead prosecutor in St. Charles County decided against a retrial.

Moore and Irons became friends after meeting through prison ministry, according to the Times. The 31-year-old Moore, a Jefferson City, Missouri, native who starred at UConn before helping lead Minnesota to four WNBA titles, put her career on hold last season to help Irons.

Moore said in January she planned to sit out a second season and miss the Tokyo Olympics. After Irons’ convictions were thrown out in March, she told the AP her plans hadn’t changed.

“’My decision to take another year was bigger than this case,” she said at the time. “But obviously this case was in the forefront of my mind. I’m looking forward when this is done to finally getting some rest and time with my family.”

Adam Silver: Restart broadcasts may need delay to keep cussing off air

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NBA players trash talk and swear more during a game than a Samuel L. Jackson character.

That’s not exactly insider knowledge. However, most of what is said is covered up by the ambient crowd noise and in-arena music at a traditional game. Nobody at home can hear Patrick Beverley‘s stream of consciousness.

But what is going to happen at the NBA’s restart in Orlando? With no crowds and less noise, and courtside microphones can pick up everything. Including language some fans may not want to be brought into their homes.

This is why the league many need a broadcast delay — similar to the seven-second delay used on some live broadcasts — so it can drop any offensive language, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at the Time 100 interview.

“I think often players, they understand when they’re on the floor, they’re saying certain things to each other because it’s so loud in the arena, they know a lot of it is not being picked up. They may have to adapt their language a little bit knowing what they say will likely be picked up by microphones and in all seriousness, we may need to put a little bit of a delay.”

One solution would be to have a live stream available to fans where nothing is dropped. There are those of us — hard-core NBA fans — who want to hear the trash talk, want to listen to the coaches call out the play as the defenders call out what is coming and talk about set picks, etc. We all what to hear what LeBron James is going to say to J.R. Smith on the court. That should be available to fans, along with the video game look and other customizable streams.

The league may have fan’s faces on video boards around the court and music pumped in, but this is just not going to look and feel the same. There may need to be a delay to keep some of the language off the air (that happens at sporting events anyway), but it would be fun to give the viewers the option, as ESPN did with The Last Dance.