NBA Commissioner Adam Silver even went as far Thursday night to suggest that the sport could provide a reprise of sorts to the phenomenon known as "pingpong diplomacy" — when table tennis players from the U.S. and China played in the early 1970s and essentially began a major mending of relations between the two countries.
Silver said he's discussed the issue at length with former NBA star Yao Ming, the biggest name in Chinese basketball. "I am not concerned at this time," Silver said during his annual state-of-the-league address prior to Game 1 of the NBA Finals. "Of course, we're not immune from global politics. It's something that we're paying a lot of attention to. I look, though, to sports — and this is something Yao and I have discussed — where we can use basketball maybe in the way pingpong was used in the days of Richard Nixon. There could be something called 'basketball diplomacy.'"
The NBA's ties with China have never been stronger: The Chinese National Team has been invited to play in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas in July, the league is sending LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers to China for a pair of preseason games in October, and the FIBA World Cup will be held across China from Aug. 31 through Sept. 15.
But the political ties are severely strained right now. The Trump administration has imposed 25% tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese imports and is planning to tax the $300 billion in imports that have so far been spared — with the Chinese responding this week by saying they may be willing to escalate matters into an all-out trade war.
Silver sees these times as a chance for basketball to, again, bring cultures together. "I think with the World Cup of Basketball coming to China in September, with our continuing to play preseason games there, with the attention on our Finals right now, I see it as an opportunity, again, to demonstrate to people that through sports there's commonality," Silver said. "And we can use the values of sports hopefully as a positive force to continue to bring people together."
In other matters addressed by Silver on Thursday: O, CANADA Silver took note of the fact that Game 1 of the NBA Finals was being played about a mile away from the site of the first NBA game — held at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1946. And the inventor of the game, Dr. James Naismith, was a Canadian.
Game 1 of the Toronto-Golden State series is the first to be played on something other than U.S. soil. "This is truly a homecoming that here we are all these years later with our first finals game ever outside the United States and for the first time here in Canada," Silver said. "So we're thrilled to be part of it."
CLIPPERS ARENA The Los Angeles Clippers are trying to bring a new arena to their city in the next five years, and Silver said the NBA is supportive of an idea where the team would have its own home. The Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers currently are tenants at Staples Center, along with the NHL's Los Angeles Kings.
"I think from a league standpoint, if you had both teams in the playoffs, plus a successful hockey team there, it becomes very difficult for us for scheduling purposes," Silver said. "So in terms of the overall marketplace and the concert marketplace, I can't speak to that. But maybe purely out of self-interest for the NBA, it would be helpful to have another arena in town."
FAN BEHAVIOR Silver addressed a number of high-profile fan incidents, including the one where Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook was heckled and allegedly was on the receiving end of racist taunts by a courtside ticketholder in Utah.
He said he did not believe the league needed to step in at that time, because he said the Jazz franchise's reaction was spot-on. "We have such tremendous confidence in the Miller family, and Gail Miller as the principal owner, I thought by her taking the court prior to the following game, speaking directly to the people in that community and saying, 'This does not represent our community,' I think that was much more powerful than me issuing a statement from all the way across country in the New York," Silver said. "I think they handled it very well."
He also spoke of entertainer Drake's antics when he sits courtside in Toronto, including an in-game shoulder massage he gave to Raptors coach Nick Nurse during the Eastern Conference finals. "We certainly appreciate his superfan status, and I know he's beloved in the community of Toronto," Silver said. "I think certainly we don't want fans, friend or foe, contacting an NBA coach during a game."
FORMAT CHANGES Silver has had exploratory talks with the National Basketball Players Association about certain changes that may become formal proposals in the coming years, such as the adding of a midseason tournament, but stressed that everything remains in the earliest exploratory stages.
EXPANSION As he has said before, Silver reiterated that expansion is not in the NBA's current plans.
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