ANAHEIM, CALIF. – Nine days on the road already, the Timberwolves set course for China immediately after Saturday night’s preseason opener against the Los Angeles Lakers at Honda Center.
They’re bound for Shenzhen and Shanghai this week for reasons beyond two preseason games against Golden State, the NBA defending champion.
They’re going in many ways to stake their claim unofficially as “China’s team” in the most populous country on Earth, much like the Houston Rockets did more than a decade ago when they used Yao Ming — an enormous star in more ways than one — to wildly popularize the game there.
They plan to do so with a promising team that now features three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler as well as young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and with the franchise’s 5 percent minority owner Lizhang “John” Jiang on board as the first Chinese owner in North American pro sports.
The Wolves will start their two-city tour in Shenzhen and finish it in Shanghai, sports-marketing executive Jiang’s hometown.
By selling a small piece of his team to Jiang, Wolves owner Glen Taylor — the two-time NBA Board of Governors chairman whom Commissioner Adam Silver credits for helping grow the league everywhere — has positioned his team to benefit from corporate companies and with American companies that do business in China. There’s also television exposure/ratings and merchandise sales, too, in a land of 1.4 billion people where the league has its own NBA China offices.
A Chinese tour is nothing new for many Wolves players, who have either accompanied NBA teams there before or visited in a summer trip sponsored by their shoe companies.
Veteran point guard Aaron Brooks even played there for a season.
“Oh man, what an experience,” Brooks said. “It was good. I enjoyed it. It was good and bad. The travel is a little bit different. The fans are passionate. They really like basketball. It’s starting to take over there.”
Brooks played for the Guangdong Southern Tigers during the NBA’s 2011-12 lockout year, a season he considered a firsthand history lesson that he shared with his brother as well. A mini-refrigerator and microwave served as his kitchen in the hotel where he stayed and he washed his dishes in the bathroom sink. He brought his own Kool-Aid with him as someone who survived as a non-seafood eater in a country where it is a dietary staple.
“I actually had one of my best meals at the hotel I stayed at, owned by the team,” Brooks said. “If I get a chance, if I’m close, I’m going to try to go by there.”
Brooks played his first two NBA seasons with Yao in Houston. Wolves coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau spent parts of several summers in China working out Yao at home when Thibodeau was a Rockets assistant coach.
Thibodeau watched the NBA’s globalization grow with a front-row seat in China every summer.
“It’s amazing and the league has done a great job with it,” Thibodeau said. “Our game has really grown. It’s everywhere. We’re fortunate to be a part of it. Obviously, we’re looking forward to going to China. I’ve spent a lot of time over there with Yao. He has a lot to do with that, the way he carried himself, the career he had. You now have a lot of people over there following the NBA.”
Wolves backup center Cole Aldrich is accustomed to crowds following whichever NBA team he plays for on these shores. But his 2015 visit to China with the Los Angeles Clippers was different.
“Normally when we get into a city late at night, there’s people waiting outside the hotel for autographs. You go to China and there are going to be a lot of people, probably a few hundred, waiting. It’s cool to see the enjoyment they have for the NBA. Instead of the same guy you see when you get into Detroit at 2:30 in the morning, there’s going to be a lot of people.”
Fans are not only plentiful, they’re also passionate and forward.
“They’re aggressive,” Brooks said. “In the NBA, you go to L.A. and New York and it’s more like a show. People want to be entertained. In China, they let you know how they feel. If it’s a bad call, you’re going to hear about it. They’re just not more into the game, but they’re more aware and aggressive. They show their personality more.
“I don’t want to detail how they show their personality, but it’s entertaining.”