The Washington Wizards play home games in Chinatown. Atop their arena, Chinese characters spell out the building’s former name. The team has worn jerseys in celebration of the Chinese New Year and invited acrobats from Beijing to perform during halftime. The popular Chinese-born player Yi Jianlian once wore a Wizards uniform, though that experiment only lasted through the 2010-11 season. And Monday, the Wizards will open their preseason calendar against the Guangzhou Long-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association.
“We have a long history with China,” said Jim Van Stone, the president of business operations for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, “and I think when you take a look at our market and the globalness of D.C., [Monday’s game is] just a unique opportunity for us.”
Basketball ranks as the top team sport in China, played by more than 300 million people. More than 700 million people in China watched NBA programming during the 2016-17 season, according to the league, and the NBA reigns as the most-followed sports league on social media in the country with more than 136 million followers. It can even be argued that Washington’s basketball team played a major role in igniting China’s love for the game.
In 1979, the then-Bullets became the first NBA team to play in China, spending two weeks in Beijing and Shanghai to fulfill the dream of former owner Abe Pollin who hoped to spread the game internationally.
“It was all Abe’s desire to take that team and go to China,” said Jerry Sachs, who worked as a vice president of the Bullets at the time.
The groundbreaking trip had some hitches. The team stayed in a hotel without air conditioning because then-Vice President Walter Mondale, in Beijing for a state visit, occupied the city’s top lounging, Sachs said. Players were mobbed at Tiananmen Square because, as Sachs was told, many Chinese had never seen black men in person before.
Nearly 40 years later, a Chinese team is visiting Washington for a friendly.
The Long-Lions arrived Friday, after nearly 19 hours on a plane. Tommy Sheppard, Washington’s senior vice president of basketball operations as well as the go-to guy for international talent evaluation, arranged a Saturday scrimmage for the team at the Wizards’ practice facility and a Sunday banquet dinner for the guests, hosted by the local team.
Monday night’s exhibition, which was planned and finalized over several months through the connections formed by Sheppard, will give both the Wizards and Long-Lions an opportunity to address roster or rotation questions. It is expected to be broadcast live in China, giving it significance overseas, Van Stone said.
Since that Bullets’ voyage to China 38 years ago, the NBA has taken root in the most populous nation in the world. This preseason, the league will hold its 23rd and 24th games in China when the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves face off in Shenzhen and Shanghai Thursday and Sunday, respectively.
NBA veteran Donald Sloan, who is on the Wizards’ preseason roster, knows a thing or two about the Chinese basketball experience after spending last season with the Guangdong Southern Tigers. The team featured several known players such as Carlos Boozer and Yi, as the Tigers advanced to the CBA Finals.
“They’re passionate people. They have their own Kobes over there like Yi,” Sloan said. “Every game, it’s loud in the arenas.”