This Day in History: First NBA Team to Play Basketball in China

By Josh Parker, August 24, 2023

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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. 

This Day in History: Washington Bullets Visit ChinaThis Day in History: Washington Bullets Visit China
Screengrabs via Youtube

These were games as much about politics as they were about the sport. Only months earlier US President Jimmy Carter had eased relations with China.

Deng Xiaoping duly extended an invitation to the 1978 NBA Champions, thus forging diplomatic ties. The Bullets graciously accepted, and what followed was a trip fondly remembered by players and coaching staff alike.

READ MORE: How the NBA Captured China's Sporting Heart

Great Wall
Image via @PostSports/Twitter

Basketball soared in popularity soon afterwards, with state media broadcasting NBA games in the 1980s. 

Its popularity was further cemented in the 2000s, when Shanghai native Yao Ming was selected as the number one overall pick by the Houston Rockets in the NBA draft.

READ MORE: Yao Ming Reflects on China's Basketball Past, Present & Future

READ MORE: Houston Rockets Retire Yao Ming's No. 11 Jersey

It was a full quarter of a century before NBA teams actually played in China again, however, when the Rockets and Sacramento Kings battled it out in exhibition games in 2004.

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. "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 off):

Outside of China? Watch on Youtube here.


For more This Day in History stories, click here.

[Cover image via Zhihu]

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