Stephen Curry and his management team arrived at a Shanghai hotel during the 2015 offseason. Curry’s popularity had skyrocketed after winning his first NBA championship, collecting a unanimous regular-season MVP and seemingly making any shot he took.
But none of that could prepare Curry for the sight of a fathead poster held by a passionate Chinese fan standing behind the barricades near the hotel entrance. Curry had seen his own baby face flashed back at himself many times, just not that of his own baby _ young daughter and sudden worldwide cult figure, Riley Curry.
That “was kind of weird because it’s like, ‘That’s my daughter,’ “ Curry says now with a smile. “But you also understand it’s not anything creepy about it. They’re trying to get as attached as they can to the storylines of each player.”
The NBA and the Warriors have noticed. As Chinese fans have become increasingly attached to their storylines in recent years, the opportunity to bring it to them has been too good to pass up.
When the Warriors play a pair of preseason games against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Shenzhen (Oct. 4) and Shanghai (Oct. 8), Warriors president Rick Welts anticipates the fandom “will be exponentially larger this time around” than when they played in the NBA Global Games in 2008 and 2013 _ and the reasons are obvious.
As Klay Thompson put it, there’s a “mini-dynasty” at work. And NBA China CEO David Shoemaker confirmed it’s resonating in the world’s most populous nation: The Warriors led the league’s Chinese market last season in jersey sales, digital viewers per game (4.1 million) and followers on the Chinese social media account, Weibo (3.8 million).
Welts maintained that fan frenzy reflects “more about the mission of the NBA than it is about the mission of the Warriors.” China has shown the most foreign NBA interest in terms of exhibition games hosted (22 since 2004), television ratings (over 700 million Chinese viewers last year) and social media (more than 136 million Chinese followers)
Welts admitted, though: “The Warriors just happen to be the prettiest girl at the dance right now.”
Curry, who has made three trips to China with Under Armour and done commercials with Vivo (Chinese cellphone manufacturer) and eHi (a Chinese car company), had the best-selling jersey in that market last season.
Warriors forward Kevin Durant has visited China annually the past seven years to film promotional spots for Nike.
And after inking a 10-year extension last summer with the Chinese shoe company, Anta, Thompson became an internet sensation as “China Klay” documented his hilarious missed dunk and various night-club appearances.
“When I go over there, I see myself on billboards, stores and posters. It’s special, man. I don’t take it for granted,” Thompson said. “It gives me goosebumps every time I see it. I was once a kid dreaming of playing basketball for a living. Now that I’m doing it and my brand is growing rapidly, it’s a dream come true.”
Many on the Warriors thought they were dreaming when they went to Shanghai to play the Lakers in 2013.
“We’re on the floor playing and you hear this random applause,” Curry remembered. “Everybody is standing up and all these murmurs are going on. People are not even looking at the floor.”
Welts could not see the commotion. So he took his eyes away from the game to understand what happened.
“We all looked up at the scoreboard,” Welts recalled. “It was just showing a picture of Kobe in street clothes behind the Lakers bench.”
Bryant became a fan favorite in China for his talent, work ethic and yearly Nike visits during most of his 20-year NBA career. So, no the Warriors were not surprised. They still shook their head over the attention, though. As Curry explained, “the dude wasn’t even playing.”
Bryant had been recovering from a torn left Achilles tendon, leaving any on-court presence solely toward rehab drills before tipoff.
“He was just warming up and doing windsprints. They were cheering for him like it was the end all,” Thompson said. “Hopefully we can eclipse that kind of status one day.”
As the Warriors strive to cement themselves in the Chinese market, Bryant’s presence in street clothes provided a visual reminder of the high benchmark they needed to reach.
“It was wild,” Curry said. “That’s kind of like the motivation and inspiration for what I’ve tried to do every summer going over there; just try to build that fanbase as best as I can.”
As he toured China four years ago with the Lakers, Warriors forward Nick Young likened Bryant to Michael Jackson because “the fans were everywhere.” While Young expressed intrigue on how the Chinese fan response would compare to those on the Warriors, their star players have already received a taste after setting up live chats, appearing in All-Star games and winning NBA titles.
During his China trips the past three years with Under Armour, Curry said a mob of fans greeted him at each airport. When Durant visited China last year with Rise Academy, he went bike riding in Taipei in order for his legions of fans to join him. Thompson said he has been showered with gifts, including Chinese artwork. Warriors forwards Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green also sparked crowds when they traveled to China for various clinics.
“Everybody in the world should be like Klay Thompson,” Durant said. “Just relaxed, cool and chill. You could tell he had a great time over in China. He’s going to try to double back and do the same thing.”
Not likely, Thompson said with a laugh: “I was very happy and I was having the time of my life. It’s going to be hard for me to top that until next summer.”
His fellow Warriors are still having fun teasing him now though.
When he visited Shengdu this summer for a clinic, Curry impersonated Thompson’s failed dunk attempt. Welts smiled and laughed when a reporter brought up “ChinaKlay.”
“I’m still trying to figure out the dance moves,” Welts said, laughing. “The dunk was understandable. The dance moves require some real study on if any of us can actually replicate them.”
Instead of providing a worthy sequel to his summer antics, Thompson said he will have a “strict schedule” as the Warriors squeeze in two preseason games, three practices, a trip to Hong Kong, a fan appreciation day and various meet-and-greets.
Thompson’s representatives will have meetings in hopes to secure some endorsement deals. While Durant will make promotional appearances for the “KD 10” Nike shoe in Shenzhen and Shanghai, Curry will sport a Chinese-themed shoe for Under Armour.
The Warriors’ stars are mindful that their expanded profile goes beyond star power and money. Warriors and league officials said Curry’s popularity partly stems from the relatability of his non-stereotypical NBA frame.
But Curry has also tried to establish organic currency by hosting clinics in a new city on each China trip and trying new things, such as martial arts.
Durant has donated funds for a refurbished court in Guangdong, while also allowing fans to see him train in China in the offseason.
Though Thompson has garnered attention for “ChinaKlay,” he felt the warmth from people when he put himself out there, be it trying his hand at Mandarin or getting adventurous with the native food.
While the Warriors have come to expect Chinese fans will treat them like the Beatles, they will try to respond with a common man’s touch.
“Every time I’ve been over there, it’s been nothing but love,” Durant said.