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Miami Heat in China: Players scale new heights

One of Shane Battier’s more memorable tours of China involved machine guns, hand grenades, machetes and even a few throwing stars.

The Heat’s forward has been traveling to China each summer for the past seven years to help promote his shoes. Battier is sponsored by Peak Sporting Goods, a Chinese company, and his signature shoes are a big seller. Each year, Battier’s shoes are given a theme, and he usually learns about his shoe designers’ vision as soon as he steps off the plane in Beijing.

“So, I’m bleary-eyed because I just got off a 14-hour flight and they wheel me right to the press conference for the Battier IVs,” he said. “Cameras are going off, and I can’t see anything and they bring out this case.”

The case was full of weapons, a cache of guns, blades and explosives. Among all the military hardware were Battier’s new sneakers.

“Through a translator, they’re explaining that the shoes are the only weapon that the basketball player has, so the theme this year is these are Shane’s weapons,” Battier said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, Lord. This is not going to go over well if it gets back to America.’ ”

So, Battier did all he could. He just rolled with it. Hey, when in China.

“I’ve got a lot of Chinese stories,” Battier said. “They’re great.”

There were no weapon stockpiles awaiting the Heat on Tuesday when it landed in Beijing, but there were plenty of fans and reporters. The Heat’s preseason trip to China runs for a week, allowing the team to promote itself, its league, its game and also its city to the most populated country in the world.

The Heat will play the Los Angeles Clippers twice, once in Beijing on Thursday and then again in Shanghai on Sunday. Excursions are planned for the team throughout the week, including a visit to the Great Wall on Tuesday. Elsewhere around the world, other NBA teams are playing in Italy, Germany, Turkey and Mexico.

“These trips are part of the reason why the NBA has grown so much internationally,” said Nick Arison, the Heat’s CEO. “The league has been very forward-thinking.”

Football is king in the United States, but basketball has outgrown all U.S. sports overseas. There is a professional basketball league in nearly every major country throughout the world, including China.

China was basketball-crazy when center Yao Ming played for the Houston Rockets. Even though he has retired, Ming is still the biggest name in basketball in China. Among active players, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers is the most popular, but the Heat’s LeBron James isn’t far behind.

“Chinese fans are crazy about their stars and those teams come first, especially those stars who win championships,” said Li Shuangfu, a basketball writer for who covered the Heat in 2010 and 2011. “That’s why Kobe has been the No.1 in the past decade. LeBron’s popularity is increasing largely because of the ring this summer. Based on that, if Heat [wins] a couple more champions, it’s highly possible they are going to surpass Lakers and become the No.1 team in China. Stars and rings counts.”

James, who promotes a variety of goods in China, has been to Asia twice in the past month. This most recent visit to China marks his ninth time in the country. James’ first priority on this trip is to help promote the game and the NBA, but he’s also going to be promoting himself.

“We’re talking about billions of people,” James said. “Each time I’ve went, the next time I’ve been like, ‘Wow.’ For us to be going over after winning the championship and to also bring another exciting team in the Clippers, I think the fans and the people there will be ecstatic about seeing us, and I hope we put on a show for them.”

In between games, practices and league-related appearances, players such as James, Battier and Dwyane Wade will find time to help market everything from shoes to soda to watches. James has several news conferences planned and Wade is expected to introduce his new shoe Wednesday in Beijing. Wade’s endorsement contract with Jordan Brand ended in September, but he quickly found a replacement in Li-Ning Company Limited, a Chinese-based company.

“As an organization, as players individually, once we get over there it will be a great opportunity to continue to grow the game,” said Wade, who has been hesitant to talk about his new shoe deal.

The NBA has always been a “players’ league,” but in China, where the biggest names are treated like movie stars, that expression is taken to an extreme. In many cases, basketball fans in China are more concerned about a player’s private and social life than their exploits on the court.

Arison says he expects fans to be “camped out” outside the Heat’s hotels in Beijing and Shanghai throughout the week. The star power of the Heat’s players has already helped the team land sponsorships with two Chinese-based company’s, Tsingtao Brewing Company and Peak Sports Goods, and Arison hopes to foster new business relationships this week.

“The Heat brand has become a global brand,” Arison said. “A trip like this is great for us from a brand-growth standpoint, but not just or for us — also for Miami. Our jerseys say Miami, and we represent the city. It’s great international branding to take trips like this both for the team and the city.”

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