China’s N.B.A. Fans Feel the Tug of Loyalty — Toward Beijing


N.B.A. stars suddenly won millions of new followers — and sometimes awkward nicknames. LeBron James was “The Little Emperor.” Michael Jordan was the “Gang Boss.” Shaquille O’Neal, the hulking 7-foot-1 center, was “The Giant Shark,” though the historian Nick Kapur noted he became “O’Fat” after he began to put on the pounds.

Rong Qiang, 40, cut school to watch N.B.A. games in the 1980s and remains loyal to Mr. Jordan and the Bulls. “Their moves were just unbelievable,” he recalled nostalgically.

Mr. Rong was one of the few shoppers perusing the normally bustling flagship N.B.A. store in Beijing’s central shopping district, the league’s largest outside North America. Idle workers adjusted displays of jerseys, shoes and memorabilia. At one entrance, life-size bobbleheads of Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant clutching Chinese flags greeted would-be shoppers.

Despite his decades-long love of the league, Mr. Rong, a clothing merchandiser, said he was prepared to withdraw his support. He was hopeful that the fervor would eventually die down, as it did after previous flare-ups between China and Japan.

Still, he said, China seemed to be in a new era in which nationalistic sentiment had become the norm.

“Everyone is feeling very patriotic,” he said.

“And we still have the C.B.A.,” he added, referring to the Chinese Basketball Association. “Though of course they’re not as good.”

Some N.B.A. fans said the game would still find love in China.

“A complete ban would never work,” said Liu Zhe, a 29-year-old Kobe Bryant superfan who himself goes by the name Kobe. A resident of the northeastern city of Harbin, he made headlines last year when he unknowingly bought the former Lakers star’s stolen high school jersey. (He later returned it.) “If they can’t hold the games in China, fans can still travel abroad and jump over the Great Firewall to watch them.”


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