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The BG News
BG24 Newscast
November 30, 2023

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James’ persona well-known in China

SHANGHAI, China – LeBron James looms large in Shanghai.

He hovers over a basket in billboards around the city leading to yesterday’s NBA exhibition game between his Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic and another game Saturday in the former Portuguese territory of Macau.

“For me, growing up, I never thought about having a billboard anywhere,” James said yesterday, slipping off a white NBA headband and replacing it with a Cleveland Indians cap.

“You see them [billboards] locally, and then you start seeing them a little bit nationwide. And now worldwide. It’s like, wow. It’s like extra credit. It’s unbelievable. You would never think that you could have your face somewhere else where you don’t even live.”

James’ shoe sponsor converted a Shanghai art gallery into a LeBron James showroom. Dubbed the “LBJ Museum,” the promotion this week includes a freshly shellacked basketball court, aimed at pitching James in China, where 300 million people – the population of the United States – play basketball.

Nike also unveiled the latest version of James’ signature shoe yesterday. It’s the second time it’s picked China – ahead of the U.S. – to show off James’ newest offering. The “limited edition” shoe was selling yesterday for almost $200.

Nike’s newest TV spot featuring James also kicked off this week in China, several weeks ahead of its U.S. premiere.

James is a hot property in basketball’s most dynamic marketplace. And the NBA and Nike know it, both looking toward next year’s Beijing Olympics, where James would surely capture world attention if he leads the beleaguered American basketball team to a gold medal.

Several hundred Chinese reporters and photographers showed up for yesterday’s practice at the Lu Wan Stadium. They engulfed James at the far end of the floor when he stopped shooting. He squatted on a low-slung bench, back against the wall, and stared up to answer questions, cutting deep furrows across his forehead.

“Every time I’m here it’s the same response: It’s great, the fans love us, the kids are great,” James said. “The spirit the Chinese have for the game of basketball is great. Nothing surprises me now.”

He was asked whether the Cavaliers will reach the NBA finals again and the pressures facing him as another season awaits.

“I don’t believe in pressure,” he said. “So it’s not hard to reduce it when you don’t believe in it.”

James is one of the four most popular NBA players in China. Kobe Bryant is probably No. 1, with China-born Yao Ming, James and Allen Iverson jousting for the next spots. At 22, James is the youngest and – get this – might be more popular than Yao.

“The Chinese are looking for individual heroes,” said Huang Risheng, a reporter with the Chinese-language Titan sports newspaper. “We are not open enough, not extroverted enough. We like the individual effort, just one man saving the whole team like James.”

“I think those three are more popular than Yao Ming. It’s a contradiction. Maybe I should say we like their style of play better.”

Like the NBA, Nike’s business is soaring in China. The country could generate $1 billion next year, up from about $100 million just five years ago. The NBA’s does about $50 million annually and should follow Nike’s growth pattern.

Nike has fashioned the preseason games in China around James, who reportedly has a seven-year deal with the shoemaker worth $90 million. Shoe rival Adidas is also promoting the games, stringing up its ads on Huaihai Road, a swanky street that includes many of the city’s high-end boutiques.

Adidas’ main star is the Magic’s Dwight Howard, whose thundering dunks carry the company’s pitch.

Nike doesn’t liken James to Michael Jordan, but others have. That included at least one Chinese reporter.

“It’s great to be compared to one of the greats, but my game and his game are totally different,”

James said.

The “LBJ Museum” – it’s unclear how many people recognize the initials as those of a former U.S. president – is aimed at drawing young fans. It is located near the historic French Concession area in central Shanghai. The museum offers 3-on-3 games in the run-up to this week’s exhibitions and introduces James with childhood photos, jerseys from high school and shoes he’s worn with Nike.

There’s also a history of his NBA career starting with a photo alongside NBA commissioner David Stern from June 22, 2003, when James was chosen No. 1 in the draft.

“The idea is to help Chinese youth understand who he is, his career, his history and his personality,” Nike spokesman Alan Marks said.

The museum also displays a copy of James’ birth certificate: Dec. 30, 1984, born in Akron, Ohio, to Gloria James.

“For the first years of his life LeBron is raised by his mother and grandmother, Freda, on Hickory Street in Akron,” reads a caption. “A milk crate hung on a telephone pole serves as the neighborhood basketball hoop attached by a few nails at whatever height the tallest available boy can reach.”

Teammate Drew Gooden said James’ popularity hinges not on charm or athletic skill but on being genuine and delivering.

“He came into the league as a superstar, but for him to fill those shoes makes it all that much better,” Gooden said.

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