BEIJING – So many fans, among the couple hundred estimated to have come out to welcome the Lakers, threw a full-court press on one of the busses idling outside a terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport for a glimpse and maybe even a picture of Beatle Kobe Bryant that the team could not depart for the hotel until security cleared an escape path. One witness described the bus as fully surrounded.
In other news, the Warriors also arrived.
The Pacific Division rivals both left Friday afternoon California time from their respective home bases and both landed Saturday night China time, only with very different roles. The Lakers remain a global name no matter what the standings say, thanks to Bryant, infinitely popular in Asia. The Warriors are here as the better team but also trying to find their way out of the opponent’s shadow on other levels.
That settles it then. Golden State is here to do more than play basketball. It is here to completely overtake the Lakers. It is here to win over a continent, that’s all.
This was never supposed to be an ordinary Warriors journey anyway, not with owner Joe Lacob and several senior executives from the business side joining the usual basketball crowd among the 87 passengers on the chartered 767 that left Oakland. With family members and acquaintances of some players and staffers along for the ride, the manifest was about double a typical trip.
The destination made it particularly significant. While the Rockets-Pacers tour just moved from the Philippines to Taiwan and the NBA would send other teams to Europe and South America this preseason, the franchise from the region with a large Asian presence going to China was a marketing opportunity for Golden State as well as league. The Lakers may have better branding, but Golden State plays in a region with a greater intersection of Chinese culture and business, with San Francisco’s population 35.8 percent Asian-American and growing, according to a 2012 report in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Asians account for 13 percent of Warriors season-ticket sales, according to Rick Welts, the president and chief operating officer. They are annually staging Asian Heritage Night at a game, and Golden State is one of several teams that celebrates the Chinese New Year among schedule promotions. It is also the third team, along with the Rockets and Heat, to have a website in Chinese, and this week joined the Lakers as the only clubs on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
“I would say right now Houston and the Lakers are the two teams that resonate most with the Chinese basketball fans, because of Yao Ming and because of the time Kobe Bryant has spent in Asia,” Welts said. “Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes both spent parts of their summer this year in Asia. The Warriors are going now. It’s a process. It hasn’t happened yet. But we think over time, we want the Warriors to be the franchise that Chinese basketball fans connect most with. That’s the goal. This is a big first step.”
And there is the timing, with the trip coming as the Warriors push into the upper-echelon of the Western Conference and are well-positioned to build on its rise to the second round in the 2013 playoffs. Plans are underway to move from Oakland to San Francisco, as soon as 2017 if logistical hurdles can be resolved. There hasn’t been a better moment to market the franchise in a basketball generation, even if the connection between the Bay Area and Beijing/Shanghai would have worked before. Putting Golden State in this spotlight now, with the rising success and a locker room of mature players who can handle attention, plays much better than previous Octobers.
“I think it’s mainly, in my eyes, recognition that we’re one of the teams in the NBA that are worthy of representing the NBA,” Lacob said. “We’re interesting. We’re relevant. To be able to go and participate in one of these international venues I think is recognition of that. I think it’s fun for our organization and our players. It’s exciting in that regard.”
The Warriors in China is such a big deal on a local level that delegations from San Francisco and Oakland both timed visits to coincide with the basketball appearances. The mayors, Edwin M. Lee of San Francisco and Jean Quan of Oakland, are scheduled to attend the games, and at last count, the San Francisco contingent alone included 76 people from government, business, community organizations and, like the team they were shadowing, guests as tourists.
When the Warriors de-planed Saturday around 8 p.m., or 5 a.m. on their body clocks after a 17-hour journey that included a refueling stop in Anchorage, there was a nice welcome, just nothing like L.A. about an hour earlier. Security personnel snapped pictures on camera phones and a few dozen fans were outside the terminal for more pictures and waves while being kept at a distance by guards holding hands to form a linked boundary. Nothing like the Lakers, but a good start, for the trip and for the future.