LA Clippers' Donald Sterling Racist Comments Could Threaten NBA's China Market

The Donald Sterling scandal is reverberating across the globe, reaching as far as China, the NBA’s biggest market outside of the U.S.

The fallout from the phone conversation recordings that were released by TMZ last week, on which Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is heard making racist remarks, has overshadowed the NBA playoffs in China and prompted heated reactions from the 300 million-plus community of basketball fans and players in China. As of last year, the NBA had more than 52 million followers on the Sina Weibo and Tencent microblogs, the Chinese equivalents of Twitter. On Weibo, many Clipper fans and basketball fans alike fired back at Sterling.

“Disappointing for Clippers fans to hear such terrible comments from owners,” a blogger and self-described member of China’s "Clipper Nation" said online.

“Re-post to support the team NOT Sterling,” the microblogger added, attaching a photo of the Clippers' starting lineup with the caption, “Say No to Racism: we Clipper Nation here in China will always support our players, not Donald Sterling.”

LA Clipper Nation China Clippers fans in China have spoken out against owner Donald Sterling's racist comments.  Weibo/ IBTimes

Others were less kind.

“The racist white piece of s--- Donald Sterling has totally ruined my Clippers, f--- you,” another microblogger wrote.

“As a fan of the sport, Sterling has upset the basketball community more than he knows,” a self-described Chinese Miami Heat “superfan” wrote. “Such disappointing leadership, the NBA needs to fix it.”

The Clippers are scheduled to compete with the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the first round of the NBA finals on Tuesday night. After Sterling’s comments were made public, some Clipper and Warrior fans were torn about whether or not to attend Tuesday's game at the Staples Center in L.A., the Clippers' home arena.

One of those conflicted fans is David Hsiao, a Taiwanese-American who grew up and works in Beijing. Hsiao witnessed the NBA’s early success in China when he attended a 2004 exhibition game in Beijing between Yao Ming’s Houston Rockets and the Sacramento Kings, which was arguably when the NBA’s mainstream popularity in China began in earnest. On Tuesday, after Hsiao took a 12-hour flight from Beijing to Los Angeles to see the Clippers take on the Warriors with his younger brother, Michael, the recordings quickly became hard to ignore, as the two brothers had planned the trip and bought their tickets before the accusations against Sterling surfaced. 

“This whole Sterling situation has been so crazy,” David Hsiao said via Facebook. “My brother and I were excited to see Game 5, [but] we considered not going.” Despite the controversy, the two decided to attend the Tuesday night game after listening to what Sterling said on the recordings and discussing it with each other.

“Honestly, now there’s an added level of excitement to see what unfolds tonight,” David Hsiao said.

Though China’s decade-in-the-making NBA fan base won’t likely abandon the league over Sterling’s remarks, it’s clear that Chinese fans are are siding with the players.

In a country where religion is often condemned, worshipping NBA players may be the closest thing to religious observance for some fans. Eddie Huang, a Taiwanese-American author, restaurateur and basketball-enthusiast, wrote for ESPN about LeBron James' visit to Chengdu last summer. At the time, he wrote, the Chinese “love them some basketball.”

“When LeBron James comes to the Middle Kingdom, it becomes abundantly clear that Jesus is in fact African-American," he wrote. 

Join the Discussion