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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.

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Marc Gasol completes historic double, Spain wins World Cup

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BEIJING (AP) — Marc Gasol looked to the sky as confetti fell, some sticking to his massive shoulders, and then cradled and kissed the giant golden chalice that goes to the World Cup champions.

He’s getting good at hoisting trophies.

Gasol got to bask in a championship celebration for the second time in three months — and this time, he did it for his country. Tournament MVP Ricky Rubio scored 20 points, Sergio Llull added 15 and Spain won the World Cup for the second time by topping Argentina 95-75 on Sunday.

“We weren’t the most talented team,” Rubio said. “We weren’t the bigger team. Put anything you want, but we were the team with the biggest heart and we showed it tonight and we showed it during the whole tournament.”

Gasol scored 14 for the winners, who never trailed and added this crown to the one it claimed in 2006. And for him, 2019 will go down as a year the likes of which few others have enjoyed.

The Toronto Raptors center becomes the second player to win an NBA title and a FIBA world gold medal in the same year, joining Lamar Odom — who did it for the Los Angeles Lakers and USA Basketball in 2010. Gasol also became the 19th to win either an NBA or WNBA crown along with a gold medal, either of the Olympic or World Cup variety, in the same year.

The first 18 all did it for the U.S.

This time, Vamos España!

“NBA champion and a World Cup champion as well,” Gasol said. “What can I say? How does it sound to you? I feel very fortunate to be in this position and be able to play this game and help these guys be part of history of Spanish basketball.”

Llull and Rudy Fernandez — the team captain, the one who initially got to accept the Naismith Trophy — went to cut down the nets shortly after the final buzzer. Gasol carried the game ball to the gold-medal ceremony, and Spanish fans wept in the stands during the national anthem.

Gabriel Deck scored 24 points for Argentina (8-1), which got off to a slow start and played uphill the rest of the way. Luis Scola was held to eight points, shooting 1 for 10 from the floor.

“We’re sad right now. We’re very sad,” Scola said. “But I feel confident, in hours, we’ll be able to look back and be very proud. They just played better than us. They were better. They deserved to win. They were the better team in the game and the tournament.”

Spain led 43-31 at intermission, after putting together a 14-2 run to open the game and a 17-1 run later in the half.

“This is basketball,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. “If you play better than the other team, you win the game. And Spain was the best team today.”

Scola, even at 39 years old still Argentina’s best player throughout the tournament, didn’t get on the scoresheet until he made a pair of free throws with 2:57 left in the third quarter. But they only cut the Spain lead to 19, and by then the Argentinian fans who stood, sang and chanted for much of the game were relatively quiet.

The day belonged to Spain.

And the year belongs to Gasol.

“It’s unbelievable,” Gasol said.

Michael Jordan sells portion of Hornets to two new partners

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan is adding two partners to the Charlotte Hornets’ ownership group, selling them each a portion of the NBA franchise.

Gabe Plotkin, founder and chief investment officer of Melvin Capital, and Daniel Sundheim, founder and chief investment officer of D1 Capital, have joined the Hornets as partners, pending NBA approval.

Jordan, a six-time NBA champion, will remain the majority owner.

Jordan said in a statement released by the team Saturday that he’ll continue to be the man making decisions about the direction of the Hornets.

“I’m excited to welcome Gabe and Dan as my partners in Hornets Sports & Entertainment,” Jordan said. “While I will continue to run the Charlotte Hornets, make all decisions related to the team and organization, and remain the team’s NBA Governor, Gabe and Dan’s investment in the franchise is invaluable, as we continue to modernize, add new technology and strive to compete with the best in the NBA. Both Gabe and Dan are industry standard-setters and proven leaders, with a belief in philanthropy and a passion for the game of basketball. They share my commitment to Charlotte and the Carolinas, and I look forward to working with and learning from them.”

Marc Gasol goes for history when Spain meets Argentina in World Cup final

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BEIJING (AP) — Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Lamar Odom, LeBron James, and Kyrie Irving.

Those are the only five players to win an NBA title and a gold medal in the same year, whether it was in FIBA or Olympic competition, with Pippen doing it twice.

It is an exclusive club – one that Marc Gasol is on the cusp of joining.

A mere three months after helping the Toronto Raptors win the NBA Finals, Gasol has led Spain to the gold medal game at the World Cup. It’ll be Spain against Argentina on Sunday, with both nations looking for their second title. Spain won the world championship in 2006 when Gasol was a 21-year-old backup, and Argentina won the inaugural tournament in 1950.

“I’m so deep in the rabbit hole right now that I don’t get to see much light,” Gasol said. “You’re so focused on your opponent, your next rival, recovering, doing whatever’s necessary to win games that you don’t look at the big picture. It’s been great. I’m very fortunate.

“I knew that committing to the national team this summer would not be easy physically. But it’s so worth it, and not just because we’re in the final game.”

He simply willed Spain into the final game.

Gasol scored 33 points – his career-high for any of the 18 FIBA-sanctioned or Olympic tournaments he’s played over the last 18 years – in Spain’s double-overtime win against Australia in the semifinals. He gave up his NBA offseason to be part of this team, a group that failed to medal at the last World Cup in Spain five years ago, and knows he might not have too many more years left on the international stage.

“It’s the responsibility of passing along that commitment, that loyalty to the team,” said Gasol, who still remembers the thrill of getting invitation letters from the Spanish federation to be part of youth teams when he was 11 or 12. “Those values that we were taught so many years with the older players, now it’s our turn to pass on the legacy to the next generation. And that’s not talent, that’s just commitment.”

Argentina has one of those passing-legacy-on players, too.

Luis Scola, 39 years old, was part of the team that won gold for Argentina at the 2004 Athens Olympics – and he’s been the best player for his team at the World Cup. He scored 28 points in the semifinal win over France, and on a team that has flashy guards who aren’t afraid to throw behind-the-back passes in any situation Scola has been the steadying force in the biggest moments.

“I’m only 27,” France center Rudy Gobert said as he lauded Scola after the semifinal matchup. “Maybe when I’m 39, I’ll know the secrets that Scola knows.”

Here’s some of what to know going into Sunday’s final:

DOUBLING UP

Pippen’s double-gold years came in 1992 and 1996 with Chicago. Jordan’s was in 1992 with the Bulls, James’ was in 2012 with Miami and Irving’s was in 2016 with Cleveland – all of those being Olympic years. Odom played on the U.S. world championships team in 2010, after his Los Angeles Lakers won that year’s NBA Finals.

OTHER DOUBLES

There have been 14 U.S. women who won a WNBA title along with a World Cup or Olympic gold medal in the same year, led by Sue Bird – who did it three times (2004 Olympics, 2010 world championship, 2018 World Cup).

UNBEATENS

Spain and Argentina are the only unbeaten teams left in the World Cup, each 7-0 so far. This is the fourth time that the gold medal will be decided in a game between unbeaten teams. The others: U.S. over Turkey (both 8-0 entering) in 2010, Spain over Greece (both 8-0) in 2006, and Argentina over the U.S. (both 5-0) at the first world championship in 1950.

USA Basketball, Jerry Colangelo will not forget who backed out of Team USA commitment

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DONGGUAN, China (AP) — USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said Thursday that when the time comes to start assembling the 2020 Tokyo Olympics roster, he won’t forget those who backed out of commitments to play in the World Cup this summer.

Of the 35 players originally selected for the U.S. player pool, only four are in China for the World Cup. The U.S. lost to France in the quarterfinals, ending a streak of seven major international tournaments – four Olympics and three World Cups – where the Americans captured a medal, the last five of them being gold.

“I can only say, you can’t help but notice and remember who you thought you were going to war with and who didn’t show up,” Colangelo said. “I’m a firm believer that you deal with the cards you’re dealt. All we could have done, and we did it, is get the commitments from a lot of players. So with that kind of a hand you feel reasonably confident that you’re going to be able to put a very good representative team on the court.

“No one would have anticipated the pull-outs that we had.”

The U.S. lost again to Serbia on Thursday, and will finish no better than seventh – the worst finish ever by an American men’s team in a major tournament. The previous worst was sixth at the 2002 world championships, and the U.S. coaches with this World Cup team insist that in terms of return on effort invested this group deserved better.

“It’s a great, great group of guys who are competing,” U.S. assistant coach Steve Kerr said. “They’ve been so committed to each other and the process. You take a lot of pride in that and you’re disappointed for them. But this is life.”

Many players cited schedule concerns as a reason to not play this summer, while others are dealing with injuries and some are acclimating in advance of joining new teams when training camps start in less than three weeks. The new international schedule is a challenge as well, with the World Cup and the Olympics in consecutive offseasons for the first time since 1967 and 1968.

More than 50 players were part of the U.S. World Cup plan at one point or another. Of those, 12 went to China, two got cut after the first week of training camp – and the other three dozen or so dropped out on their own.

“We’re going to let the dust settle, let things depress a little bit,” Colangelo said. “Obviously I’m always thinking ahead which means what’s going to take place, and it’s going to happen fast and soon because we just have to get our act together for the Olympics.”

The U.S. will go to Tokyo seeking a fourth consecutive gold medal, and getting stars to play on the Olympic team is rarely a problem. The World Cup team wasn’t exactly loaded with superstars – only two of the 12 U.S. players on the World Cup roster were All-Stars this past season, while nine of the 12 players on the 2016 Olympic team were coming off All-Star appearances.

Colangelo felt ankle injuries sustained by Jayson Tatum during the World Cup and Kyle Kuzma just prior to the tournament hurt the U.S. chances in China, noting that the team felt Kuzma was going to be a big help. But he insisted that he didn’t fault the effort of the players who made the commitment this summer.

“The players did everything they can do,” Colangelo said. “They are a good group of guys. But we went in with higher expectations in terms of roster and it didn’t kind of happen the way we were hopeful and anticipating and expecting. That, to me, was a big disappointment.”

Colangelo also expressed disappointment for U.S. coach Gregg Popovich, who will also lead the Tokyo-bound team next summer. Popovich missed out on making the 1972 Olympic team as a player, and was an assistant coach on the 2002 world championship and 2004 Olympic teams that failed to win gold medals.

“I told Pop I felt really bad for him because I wanted him to have a chance to win a gold medal after his experience with USA Basketball in the past,” Colangelo said. “But it wasn’t meant to be in this competition.”

So now, his eyes are turning to Tokyo.

It won’t take long for the recruiting process to start, either.

“Going forward for USA Basketball, we’re going to need the cooperation of teams, agents and then there has to be communication with players 1-on-1 to solidify those commitments,” Colangelo said. “I am going to be anxious to see how many players reach out early to indicate that they wish and want and desire to play.

“But I’ll make this statement: It’s as much about maybe who we don’t want as much as who we want.”