On August 24, 1979, the NBA's Washington Bullets made a historic visit to China, becoming the first professional US sports team to be invited to the country.
With games hosted in Beijing and Shanghai, the Bullets (now named the Wizards) participated in two exhibition games against the Chinese national team and the Bayi Rockets – the latter of whom gave the visitors a run for their money in a game that ended 96-85 to the Washington team.
Screengrabs via Youtube
These were games as much about politics as they were about the sport. Only months earlier had US President Jimmy Carter eased relations with China when an invitation was extended by former leader Deng Xiaoping, thus forging diplomatic ties.
Having won the NBA Championship in 1978, the Bullets graciously accepted in what is a fondly remembered trip by players and coaching staff alike.
Image via @PostSports/Twitter
The game soared in popularity soon afterwards, with state media broadcasting NBA games in the 1980s. Its popularity was further cemented in 2002 when Shanghai native Yao Ming was selected as the number one overall pick by the Houston Rockets in the NBA draft. But it would not be until 2004 that China would see other NBA teams grace its land with the Rockets and Sacramento Kings battling it out for exhibition games in the two cities that the Bullets visited a quarter of a century prior.
While the Washington outfit’s visit had not sown the seeds for basketball in China, it certainly brought a watering can along.
“You could tell basketball was getting popular," former head coach Dick Motta later recalled to the Washington Post. "Everywhere you went and there was open space, you saw a basketball hoop. They loved it. It was just a matter of time before they developed it.”
Understanding the enormity of the occasion, some of the players returned to the Middle Kingdom in 2009 to mark the trip’s 30 year anniversary. Hall of Famer Wes Unseld was joined by then-Wizards stars, Caron Butler and Randy Foye as well as former Bullet player Gheorghe Muresan in a celebration of a proud part of the team's history.
Watch a video from the 1979 visit below (VPN on):
Outside of China? Watch on Youtube here.
[Top image via Zhihu]
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