NBA reaches far and wide to build fan base

Clippers guard Baron Davis arrived last month at Mumbai Airport in India and stepped into a taxicab.

He immediately noticed how India's driving habits hinge more on aggressiveness and efficiency than conventional traffic signs.

"A dog was walking across the street and the driver was going 70 [miles per hour] and not looking," Davis said. "The closer it gets, I'm in the back of the car screaming like 'Aghhhhh'! Then he goes right past the dog, laughs and says, 'stupid American.' "

Call it part of Davis' cultural assimilation. He was in Mumbai for a week in July for the NBA's first fan clinic event in India, part of 345 international events the NBA has played host to in 158 cities and 24 countries in the last year.

Davis' clinics attracted about 10,000 fans a day, including Indian cricket stars Irfan Pathan and Piyush Chawla. The surge of interest in basketball overseas reminded Davis of his several trips to China. "You see the before and after effect," he said.

This summer, Davis also visited China to promote his shoe and apparel line with the Chinese company Li Ning.

"It was great to be a part of the NBA and see the way they build their brand," Davis said about his tour.

He had plenty of company. About 300 current and former NBA players, coaches, dance teams and mascots and about 50 sponsors have participated in the league's international events.

Commissioner David Stern said the NBA plans to hold a regular-season game somewhere in Europe before the 2012 Olympics. Stern also told The Times that he hopes a Pan-Asian basketball league will form in the next two to four years, although it may not be affiliated with the NBA.

"The great upside is that our international presence and the digital medium go hand in hand," Stern said. NBA games are broadcast in 215 countries and nearly half of the NBA's traffic on its website comes from overseas.

Lakers Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest and Sasha Vujacic also visited China this summer and put on basketball clinics, as well as promoting their shoe deals, Bryant for Nike, and Artest and Vujacic for the Chinese brand PEAK.

During his five-day Asian tour, Bryant told reporters, "They love the game and I love being around their energy."

Bryant's jersey is the NBA's top seller in China, but he's popular throughout Asia. One woman waited in line 17 hours to catch his appearance in Manila, and in Taiwan, Bryant was greeted by fans with hundreds of handmade posters, according to his website.

But on Artest's overseas trip, he was the one providing the gift. He donated a $45,000 watch to a Chinese middle school basketball player. While in China, Artest also fielded calls from fans after posting his cellphone number on Twitter. In a video posted on YouTube, Artest said: "I'm slowly starting to find out how to do promotions without getting in trouble."

Vujacic met up with Artest in Quanzou, China, where PEAK is located, and they played a 10-minute game on opposing teams in a match dubbed the "Lakers' Civil War." Vujacic team's won.

Vujacic and former Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo also visited a school in Chengdu this summer that was badly damaged by the Sichuan province earthquake that struck the area in May 2008. About 70,000 people were killed in the 7.9-magnitude quake.

"When I stepped out of the car, I was overwhelmed," Vujacic said. "They welcomed us and it was amazing. The kids were singing and looking forward to a great experience. It was sad when they gave us a tour and showed us the area where the earthquake happened. To know how many people died is really sad, but they appreciate everyday life."

Davis reached a similar conclusion during his trip to India. Davis, who grew up in Compton, says, "South Central is paradise and a kingdom" compared with some poor areas he saw in Mumbai.

"All we know is basketball to be king here in the United States," Davis said. "Then you go to a place where it's emerging and people are ready for it."

Lakers guard Jordan Farmar will be in Taiwan this week as part of an NBA tour. And he expects fans there to be enthusiastic about the basketball clinics he will host.

After participating in similar clinics in Korea and Israel in recent years, Farmar says those experiences reminded of what led him to play basketball when he was a kid.

"You can use sports to bridge gaps," Farmar said. "That's big, whether that's in America, Asia or Israel. People can get kids connected together through sports. A country may be at war, but that doesn't mean their people can't high-five each other."


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