by Dan Martin
SHANGHAI, China (AFP) — For two raucous hours on Thursday night, Chinese fans and US basketball stars called a timeout on the increasingly bitter clash of values between their countries and let sport take over.
In stark contrast to the war of words over an NBA executive’s support for Hong Kong democracy protests, Chinese fans filled an 18,000-seat Shanghai arena to revel in the NBA’s high-flying razzle-dazzle.
The exhibition game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets made clear that it will be difficult to shake the NBA’s huge following among passionate Chinese fans raised on the exploits of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and former Rockets great Yao Ming.
Thousands showed up in the bright yellow No. 23 Lakers jersey of superstar LeBron James, cheering his every move as some occasionally chanted his nickname, “King James”.
There had been concerns that the game – and another scheduled Saturday in the southern city of Shenzhen – would be cancelled over the escalating dispute, or face protest actions.
Instead, from the moment routine warm-ups started, the fans in Shanghai gasped in delight or cheered wildly with every dunk, no-look pass, and three-pointer as if it were the NBA Finals.
“I was really worried and couldn’t fall asleep last night. I was afraid that the game would be cancelled,” said Cai Zhicong, 27, an avowed James fanatic.
“I have been imagining what kind of a person he is. I’m so excited.”
The NBA holds a pair of pre-season games annually to stoke its already red-hot popularity in China, where it is arguably the single most popular and followed sports league.
That following could take a hit after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey angered China with his comments and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver added more fuel by defending Morey’s right to free speech.
Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous Chinese territory and the ruling Communist Party considers democracy protesters there to be violent separatists.
But China sports experts believe the NBA is well-placed to weather the brand crisis.
The quality of play in China’s domestic league is far below the NBA, and its national team gives the country little to cheer about.
The mixed feelings of many fans were clear in their appearance, with thousands wearing NBA jerseys but also stickers of China’s flag on their cheeks.
A fan in a Lakers jersey who gave only his surname Yang, said Chinese can be both patriotic citizens and NBA fans.
“From a national standpoint, we should support our country’s decisions. Even if the game was cancelled, we wouldn’t have any regrets,” he said.
“But it wasn’t cancelled… (and) because James is my idol, I’m very happy to be here.”
The dispute is likely to keep simmering.
Outside the game venue, a pair of protesters held up red banners bearing profane curses of Morey and Silver.
Plans to air the game in China were ditched amid a general revolt by the NBA’s Chinese sponsors and partners.
But game images seeped onto Chinese social media, with many Chinese web users denouncing the spectators as “shameless.”
A number of people stood outside the arena to hand small Chinese flags to arriving fans, while others said they came to the area to declare support for their country.
“I (am here) to support China,” said one man who also wore a t-shirt saying “I love Hong Kong”.
“He (Morey) has got to go. He has to apologise to the Chinese people. He has hurt the Chinese people’s feelings,” railed the man, who declined to give his name.
There were no incidents reported outside the stadium.
Inside the arena, the mood was far different, as fans lapped up the NBA’s signature show-biz onslaught of skillful play interspersed with thumping music, cheerleader routines and slam-dunking acrobats during breaks.
Most fans seemed too dazzled to bother waving the little red flags.
After an AFP reporter pointed out to one young woman that her flag had fallen to the floor — a no-no in China — she sheepishly picked it up, stowed it in her bag and turned back to the game.
© Agence France-Presse