IN 1994, AT ROUGHLY six o’clock on a steamy June evening in Shanghai, China, the world began to change for a skinny Shanghai youngster who, at age 13, already had sprouted to seven feet in height.

Surrounded by friends with whom he shared a passion for basketball, a teenage Yao Ming watched his first live telecast of an NBA game.

There, before his eyes, on a TV set in a small apartment, New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing and Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon matched up in a memorable battle of big men in the 1994 NBA Finals.

“We were excited,” Yao recalls. “We hear about the NBA, but at that time, NBA hadn’t come to China yet. We would only get to see games that were played three months ago, something like that.

“Then, with the game played live, we watched a lot more of the mascots and just the show.”

Still, Yao was drawn to the battle of the centers, never once believing that just eight years later he would wind up in Houston, daring to carry on Olajuwon’s legacy. Back in 1994, an Asian playing in the NBA was too preposterous even to dream about.

“We know NBA basketball is the best in the world,” Yao says. “You never imagine you can play there. Ask any American kid if they dream to play there, and they say yes. But for me? No. I never even thought it was possible. It is really too far.”

Today, mere months removed from the Beijing Olympics but 15 years since Yao watched his first live telecast of an NBA game, the Chinese hoop dreamers who have followed Yao into the NBA include New Jersey Nets forward Yi Jianlian and Los Angeles Lakers guard Sun Yue.

“Maybe the kids right now in China are starting to think about it,” Yao says.

It is not hard to imagine many more Chinese players in the NBA, especially now that the league has partnered with Anschutz Entertainment Group -- which owns and operates the Staples Center, the downtown Los Angeles home court of both the NBA’s Lakers and Clippers -- to build 10 to 12 new arenas in China over the next several years.

The sheer number of youngsters now playing basketball in China, estimated in the millions, indicates that there will be many more who have the skills needed to follow Yao, Yi, and Sun to the NBA.

The advent of the Internet has also played a huge role in popularizing the NBA all over the world. Stern, always an early adapter, saw the potential of a digital league before most. Just as importantly, he understood that the Internet has no borders.

“It’s no accident that [our website] gets more visits, in some months, from China than from the U.S.,” Stern says. “You want photography? You want statistics? If you live in China, you can get a game ‘streamed’ every day.

“So the Internet is huge. When someone asks me what the future developments we’re looking at are, I say there is international and there is digital, and they’re actually related, because the digital makes the international so much more cohesive.”

Could the future of the NBA include a division outside North America?

Stern has avoided such speculation in the past, but he sees the 2012 Olympics, scheduled for London, as another event that will spike interest in basketball and the NBA.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Stern says when asked to predict what NBA basketball might encompass in 10 more years.

He does, though, have a distinctly global vision.

“Ideally, there would be an NBA-assisted league in India,” he says. “There would be an NBA-related league, in some shape or form, in Latin America, possibly [development-] league related. There would be an NBA-partnered league, maybe bearing our name, in conjunction with the [Chinese Basketball Association] in China. There would be a much bigger NBA presence in Eastern Europe. I’m not sure if Russia would be the hub or somewhere else. … And a bigger NBA presence in Europe, coming out of the 2012 Olympics.”

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