Skip to content

Finding the key to global basketball

How the Chinese basketball league is changing the face of the game

In the aftermath of successful careers in the National Basketball Association (NBA), many athletes take their talents to China, seeking greater success and more lucrative paychecks. The stars of yesteryear, waning in the NBA, see the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) as the next arena for them to dominate and maintain their stardom.

The CBA offers a talent level above the European leagues and the NBA’s G-League, but still many echelons below the NBA, allowing veterans to play at a high level among players many years their junior. This has led to players who never achieved dominance in the NBA excelling in the CBA. While there are many ways in which this happens, the most frequent is the aging NBA star signing in China and proceeding to dominate once again.

The most well-known story of these players is Stephon Marbury. A two-time all star in the NBA, Marbury was one of the most polarizing figures of his class after being surrounded by controversy, personality conflicts, and egotistical play. After excelling in Phoenix, New Jersey, and New York, “Starbury” signed with the Beijing Ducks in 2010 and has since won three championships in China. Widely credited (along with Kobe Bryant) as one of the most important foreign athletes in the cultural acceptance and subsequent celebration of basketball in Chinese society, Marbury has turned his shooting ability and charisma into the catalyst for the American transition into the CBA.

Similar to Marbury in both his brief stardom and also his controversy, is Gilbert Arenas, who is most famously known for confronting a teammate with a firearm in the Washington Wizards (FKA Washington Bullets) dressing room. Arenas played a couple seasons with the Shanghai Sharks, and his dynamism led to mass adoration from the Chinese market and his averaging a double-double in points and assists. Agent Zero, as Arenas is known, followed the path of Marbury into the Chinese league as a powerful American presence.

Recently, Emmanuel Mudiay played with the Guangdong Southern Tigers before being drafted by the Denver Nuggets. Financial issues drove Mudiay to play for a team which would actually pay him, instead of playing college basketball in the United States. His decision illustrated the growing respect for the talent level of the CBA. Until then, only the washed up or undraftable players would leave North America to play. Mudiay’s signing is probably the most crucial signifier of the rise of Chinese basketball, as this represented a legitimate nod to the prowess and development of the CBA.

So what does the emergence of China as a basketball market signal for basketball as a whole? Firstly, China represents the largest national market in the world, one which could prove exponentially more valuable than the North American market the NBA currently occupies. While there are other countries with small leagues, the profitability and population pale in comparison with China’s size and capital flows. Secondly, the relationship between the NBA and China has the potential to normalize foreign players in the league, eventually leading to the NBA becoming a league of global talent. The NBA has been playing global preseason games since 1994, yet only began to schedule annual games since 2013, with at least one being played in China, either against a CBA or NBA team. While this will never become part of the normal league schedule due to the difficulties of large travel times and disorienting schedules for players, it further expands Chinese appreciation of the game.

With old NBAers flocking to China to extend their careers with lucrative contracts, and newer players starting careers there, there is a gradual recognition of the healthy basketball environment curated there. The global expansion of basketball truly begins with the popularization of the sport in China.