The fact that basketball is poised to overtake soccer as China's most popular sport got a tremendous assist in October when two teams from the best league in the world, America's National Basketball Association (NBA), appeared for a pair of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai.
Unquestionably credit for the assist goes to Chinese NBA star, Yao Ming, who appeared in his native country in the uniform of the Houston Rockets for the first time defeating the Sacramento Kings, 88-86.
"I felt really nervous out there," Yao said. "But I was very happy to play again for the fans in Shanghai."
The 11,000 plus lucky fans in attendance and millions watching on national TV saw the first visit of an NBA team in over a quarter century. (In 1979 the Washington Bullets played the Chinese national team and the Bayi Rockets team.)
So what does all this fan and media interest in the sport do for Yao's former team, the Shanghai Sharks and all the other teams that make up the CBA?
Though they've had their share of struggles, the CBA is determined to become the second greatest league in the hoop world behind the NBA. That's a tall order.
Since its earliest days however, CBA officials have shrewdly gone to the home of the NBA, the country where the sport was invented and brought over American players and coaches, harnessing their skills and knowledge to help grow the overall level of professional basketball in China.
However, despite the sport offering universally-shared elements whether on a court in Liaoning or Los Angeles (like China Olympic coach Del Harris said, "pick and roll is pick and roll in any language"), coming to China posed a major cultural adjustment from even the most well-traveled Americans. Frankly some never adjust.
"China is completely different than America. There's gonna be an adjustment in lifestyle, no question," states former Utah Jazz player Jay Humphries who helped coach the Jilin Tigers to the semifinals before losing to Yao Ming and the Sharks in 2002.
"It begins with the living situation," explains Humphries, "In the NBA you go to practice then you go home to your family. In Asia teams live together. I took it as a life experience and came out the better for it. One of the most gratifying things is that I've created friendships without being able to speak the language".
James Hodges, a top scorer and rebounder, led the Wisconsin Whitewater to a Division III national collegiate championship. Soon afterwards he became one of the first Americans to play in China.
"I remember the CBA's very first year. We shared a practice facility with wrestlers, volleyball players, and women basketball players. Well the first day it snowed we were given shovels. Here we are professional athletes in the middle of practice clearing roads with local citizens but it made us closer to the community and our fans," recalls Hodges.
For most of the players the single biggest change wasn't housing or transportation. It was food which is critical to the performance of a professional athlete. Some simply couldn't make the change over. Feeling that nothing beats home cooking, many opted for the next best thing and sought out American fast food outlets found in China's bigger cities.
"Oh man I tried and experienced some of it," recalls Chris Anderson during his days with the Jiangsu Dragons and now with the New Orleans Hornets, "but there were a few things I saw that totally changed my mind like fish for breakfast staring back at you from the plate. For months I ate at McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken."
Jason Henderson who enjoyed Chinese cuisine back home was shocked when he arrived to play center for Jiangsu.
"I had no idea but soon realized Chinese food is 100% different than American Chinese food. I lived on rice, chicken, and eggs. I lost a lot of weight and it definitely had a negative impact on my play."
But many did embrace their new home and though it took some getting used to eventually experienced such Chinese offerings as fried scorpion, chicken feet, steamed eel, and turnip cakes.
"The Chinese take great pride in their food," states Charles Bonsignore, an American agent and the first to send players to China, "I fell in love with the duck dishes and the shrimp".
Americans may not share a love of the local cuisine but they do love their many Chinese fans.
"Fans in China put their heart and soul into supporting their team," says Garth Joseph, who led the CBA in rebounds.
"The small gyms were packed. Lots of standing, screaming, horns blaring. They're more active than American fans," recalls Henderson.
For American CBA pioneer James Hodges, his years entertaining fans of the Liaoning Hunters with his league-leading and innovative dunks made him a crowd favorite.
"The Chinese people were terrific to me. I always felt bigger than life. They treated me like Michael Jordan," says Hodges.
"The whole city embraced me. I couldn't go anywhere without being mobbed by friendly fans. It kept me motivated and was certainly a plus."
One reason why Hodges was so popular is the same reason why many Americans in the CBA are, it is because they are skilled at making creative plays and it is that more entertaining brand of basketball (and why the NBA is so popular in China) they feel would make the CBA more popular too.
"One of the league's limitations is that they really emphasize perimeter shooting from their guards," observes Laron Profit who won a championship playing for the Guangdong Tigers and now is in the NBA with the Washington Wizards.
"A big weapon is the 3-point shot and there is not much intensity on defense. I played games where a team scored into the 140s," explains Profit. "As a result they haven't become infatuated with American guards who penetrate and drive more. They keep innovation to a minimum."
By keeping guards on the perimeter it affects the game of the team's big man, often a foreign player. Most American centers, either in college or the pros, relied on a playmaking guard who can penetrate and make inside passes.
"It's hard to tell Chinese coaches their center may not be performing as good as you'd like because your guard stays outside," points out Profit. "CBA coaches think the big guy should be good enough to make anything happen. That just isn't possible. There would be no Karl Malone without John Stockton."
Adds Bonsignore, a veteran observer of Chinese basketball, "While salaries grew owners and coaches expectations of players naturally grew, but a bit too high I think."
The CBA is aware of its shortcomings and are making long-term plans to be more professional and competitive. This year they began a draft system operating a camp in the United States.
"I think it's a matter of them saying 'ok we're going to standardize some things, get a salary cap, screen potential players better, work within budgets and aim for better competition in the league,'" says Bruce O'Neil, President of the United States Basketball Academy that ran the camp in Oregon.
"If they can remain consistent with players, owners, league officials and sign a couple sponsors to long term deals, the CBA has outstanding potential," feels Bonsignore.
Bruce O'Neil has worked with the CBA since the beginning and has promoted basketball in all parts of the world. He agrees with the American players' observation regarding talent.
"The reason you bring in these outside players is they are exciting, athletic and the fan support will be bigger. With better competition the Chinese will see the ability they have to emulate. It's all a work in progress. You have to be patient."