When the Rockets selected Yao Ming with the number one overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, Andrew Cheng, born and raised in Houston and a huge basketball fan, was elated. The entire Asian community in the area was brimming with excitement. Cheng’s mom, who was a director at a Chinese school in the community, was contacted by the Rockets to assist with selling tickets to the community. She soon became the president of a Yao Ming fan club.
Cheng’s parents had emigrated from Taiwan. Now, everyone else in China saw Houston as a destination as well. “Once Yao came, a lot of people from China started moving to Houston,” Cheng told VICE Sports. “People started calling from China and said they wanted to travel all the way to Houston just to watch Yao’s first NBA game. It was a huge thing for the community. You felt it.”
While local fans in Houston, like Cheng, were excited to see whether the 7’6” center from Shanghai, China would succeed in the NBA, Peter Mianyang, who is from the Sichuan province in southwest China and now resides in Shanghai, was one of many basketball fans in China who were getting their first introduction to NBA basketball.
As a 13-year-old, Mianyang watched his first NBA game because of Yao. He quickly adopted the Rockets as his team. In his rookie season, Yao surpassed all expectations, playing in all 82 games while averaging 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. During the 2006-07 season, Yao averaged a career-high 25.0 points.
As Yao grew in prominence, China embraced the Rockets as their home team. Brian Yang, who produced Linsanity and a Chinese biopic on Stephon Marbury called My Other Home, said Houston penetrated the market in China to such an extent that “you could buy a Houston Rockets mascot toy in stores.” Shane Battier got a seven-figure sneaker deal with Chinese sneaker sportswear brand PEAK and even Moochie Norris was a household name. “Anything and everything about Houston mattered. They were must-see television,” Yang said.
After injuries forced Yao to retire following the 2010-11 season, the Rockets were expected to recede into the background in China. But even without Yao, they remained the most popular team. “I felt an attachment to the Rockets even after Yao retired,” Mianyang said, as did many other fans in China.
That attachment offered Houston an opportunity to penetrate the Chinese market. Cheng, who is now a sports director and talk show host for a Chinese newspaper and television station in Houston, points out the different Chinese sponsors that you see at the Toyota Center for every Rockets home game. Houston was also one of the first teams to figure out how to reach Chinese fans via social media, as one of the first NBA teams to have an account on Weibo, the Twitter-equivalent app in China.
Slowly though, there’s been a gradual shift in the last few years, and another team has emerged as China’s new favorite, a perfect foil to Houston's popularity: The Golden State Warriors. They have four of the league's most recognizable stars in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. More importantly, they’ve appeared in each of the last three NBA Finals, winning twice.
“You fall in love with greatness,” Yang said, contrasting how Chinese fans initially embraced Yao and the Rockets, and not Yi Jianlian and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Andrew Crawford, a former beat writer covering the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) for the Shanghai Daily, believes the Warriors are now one of the most recognizable franchises in China. He rates them comparably to the New York Yankees and Manchester United, iconic teams that even the most casual fan recognizes for their success.
According to statistics provided by NBA Asia, the Warriors are consistently one of the most popular teams on Weibo. When NBA China released their highest-selling jerseys back in January, Curry was second behind only LeBron James, who is a brand unto himself. Harden was third. Durant was fourth.
The Warriors, too, have been savvy about marketing themselves to the Chinese. Like the Rockets, they have Chinese New Year themed jerseys. Curry has starred in the NBA’s annual Chinese New Year ads. Thompson has a shoe deal with Anta, a Chinese sports apparel company, and turns into a walking meme when he visits.
The Bay Area also has a huge Asian population, which Crawford believes is another factor. In the preseason, the Warriors played two games against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Shenzhen and Shanghai as part of the league’s 2017 Global Games.
In Curry, Cheng believes they also have the perfect superstar to market to fans. “You can see kids relate to an NBA superstar who isn’t 6’8”,” Cheng said. “He’s not a tall guy, and they think, maybe this is something maybe we can even do. Because Curry isn’t 7’7”, and he isn’t LeBron James, kids can see themselves in him.”
It is no surprise that the Rockets and Warriors—not to mention the league as a whole—has such intense interest in China. It is the most populous country in the world, and in the past decade, the popularity of the NBA has grown immensely. According to statistics provided by NBA Asia, basketball is the number one sport in China and the NBA is the most popular sports league in China.
Tencent, a massive Chinese corporation that is now the fifth most valuable listed company in the world, is the league’s largest international partner and reaches millions of users on their platforms each season. On social media, the NBA has more than 144 million followers in China.
The top stars in the league, including LeBron and Durant, have started to plan their summers around overseas trips to Asia. “When the players show up, it’s like Beatlemania,” Yang said. “It’s the only opportunity for fans in China to interact with these players.”
With a market like that, the Rockets are not surrendering their perch atop the Chinese basketball hierarchy easily. Since Yao’s retirement, the organization has made a concerted effort to maintain ties in China. “They know what they’re doing,” Crawford said. “They’ve worked hard to cultivate this attachment to the Chinese market.”
To that end, the Rockets drafted another Chinese big man in Zhou Qi, a 7’1” forward from Xinxiang in 2016, which has reignited interest both in China and in Houston. Qi has appeared sparingly in 16 games for the Rockets this season, but Cheng knows if he were to ever make the team’s rotation, the region would react similarly as when Yao first arrived.
“There’s already a lot of interest in the community,” Cheng said. “Even if he played five to ten minutes a game, you would see a lot more Chinese people at the games. If he ever became a starter, it would bring the Chinese fans out in droves. There’s just so much pride in that.”
As the fanbase in China gets more access, it has allowed them to familiarize themselves with other franchises, working to the advantage of a team like the Warriors. If Golden State and Houston do play each other in the Western Conference Finals, a battle many expect, it may not only be for the right to compete for a championship, but also an opportunity to label themselves as China’s team. “I think Warriors fans will become Rockets fans, and Rockets fans will become Warriors fans, depending on who wins,” Cheng said.
Yang disagrees. He believes the Rockets have a much more deep-rooted connection with Chinese fans because of Yao, while the Warriors are more the flavor of the month. “That will change depending on who the next superteam is,” he said.
The deciding factor card might ultimately be Yao, who remains a prominent basketball figure in China even today. He's currently the president of the CBA, and the NBA has worked with Yao, the CBA, and the Chinese Ministry of Education to help grow the game, developing an education curriculum incorporating basketball development which will reach 2,000 schools across 15 provinces and municipalities this year.
Recently, when Yang traveled to China, he still saw Yao plastered on billboards and advertisements everywhere. “The Rockets will always have a special place in the fanbase’s hearts,” Yang said. “Yao is the country’s national hero and will be for a while.”
Houston might also have one more advantage this season, as they’ve merged both China’s deep-rooted love for Yao’s former team with their love of getting behind a winner.
“Having the best record in the league this season helps,” Yang said.