China Games are about learning and growing, on and off the court
Apart from providing Chinese fans with an up-close look at the best basketball on the planet, the NBA China Games inspire youngsters to pick up the ball and take a shot at excelling on the court.
This year's edition of the two-game preseason series featured the Dallas Mavericks, with beloved German veteran Dirk Nowitzki, clashing with the Philadelphia 76ers, led by promising young star Joel Embiid.
After playing last Friday at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, the teams squared off in a Monday rematch at Shenzhen Universiade Center in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.
Off the court, the league used the games to enhance its influence on China's basketball-loving kids. Philadelphia players, coaches and executives participated in the dedication of an NBA Cares Learn and Play Center at Shenzhen's Nanshan Lishan School on Sunday, featuring a newly refurbished outdoor basketball court and a new student reading room.
The project includes the donation of computers, books and basketball equipment. Following the dedication ceremony, players and coaches participated in a hoops clinic for students.
"It's a natural fit because our players are so young, and it was only a few years ago that they were kids themselves," said Sixers CEO Scott O'Neil.
"We have a long-term approach here in China. The 76ers have been here for a long time and we will be here for a very long time."
Last week in Shanghai, Mavericks players and coaches hosted a basketball clinic in partnership with the Special Olympics to celebrate the organization's 50th anniversary. The clinic taught the fundamentals of the game and how basketball can unite communities and foster acceptance and inclusion.
Those activities were just two examples of the NBA's long-term plan for Chinese kids.
"This summer we had 25 current and former NBA players in China, including LeBron James and Stephen Curry. We particularly are focusing on youth development," said Mark Tatum, deputy commissioner and chief operating officer of the NBA.
"We have a partnership with the Ministry of Education, and this year we will have 4,000 schools and four million kids playing in the junior NBA programs in China.
"We also had our very first Junior NBA World Championship in Orlando, Florida in August. The tournament included both a boys' team and a girls' team from China."
Still, attracting the young generation remains a daunting task, especially given that e-sports is growing dramatically in China. But instead of viewing gaming as an enemy, the NBA is making the digital field another priority.
"We believe in the future of e-sports and we have our own NBA 2k league, but we also believe that kids should be active and be playing sports, especially basketball," said Tatum.
"It's a balance. E-sports and playing video games can lead to a passion for playing basketball, for getting kids on the courts and shooting basketballs."
Meanwhile, newly appointed NBA China CEO Derek Chang said the current format of playing preseason games here has the advantage of providing more time for the league's players to interact with fans and be immersed in the culture.
"For example, at the event at the Lishan school, the 76ers and league officials had a great time playing table tennis and meeting the kids. If we didn't have the players there for as long as we did, we wouldn't necessarily be able to do that kind of thing," said Chang.
With new leadership at NBA China, the game's growth should continue.
"The NBA has never been more committed to building the sport of basketball throughout China," said league commissioner Adam Silver.
"It's amazing to see the progress this nation has made since we first played games here in 2004. Growth at the junior, senior and grassroots level has really been fantastic."