Basketball Colonialism: Blueprint for an Asian League

NEW YORK -- Someday a Chinese Sir Charles and a Filipino Shaquille may be competing with the NBA's Barkleys and O'Neals for the world's basketball dollars, if former U.S. Congressman Ralph Harding's dream comes true.

Harding says his group is close to completing deals for six Asian franchises to begin play this year in a big-time league modeled after the National Basketball Association, the best and most lucrative basketball league in the world.

"We're patterning our teams right after the NBA in the United States," Harding said in a recent telephone interview from his office in Pocatello, Idaho.

The Asian Professional Basketball Association is Harding's brainchild, in partnership with the huge sports and management firm ProServ and a sprinkling of NBA veterans including K.C. Jones, a former championship coach.

Harding said he expected to have deals done by about mid-March with "major corporations" to create teams in Tokyo and Seoul followed by an agreement with Beijing. These teams would compete with franchises already set up by well-connected business groups in Hong Kong, Taipei and Manila, he said.

"Basketball is fast becoming the number one sport in Asia," he said. "It is the major sport in China with about 150 million basketball players there."

He added: "Tuesday night is NBA night in China and damn near every television set in China is tuned to the NBA.

"In fact they took a poll, I think it was last April or May, in China as to what man you admire the most. Number one was Deng Xiaoping. Number two was Michael Jordan."

He said all six countries that will be in his league -- China, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and the Philippines -- already get a televised NBA game of the week.

Each team will try for the eight best players in its country plus four Americans, only two of whom may be on the court at any time. Each will have an American coach and two local coaches, one of whom must speak English.

"We will have clearly the most outstanding basketball team in each country," Harding said, adding that the U.S. players will be mainly collegians who didn't quite make the NBA.

He expects the Asian league to be more attractive to Americans than the U.S. minor-league Continental Basketball Association or European leagues.

"We will pay them more than the CBA does and we think we will have a better program than most of the players who go to Europe currently."

But the local players are the key.

"We want to market it the first few years on the basis of nationalism. We want everyone in China cheering for Beijing," he said.

"Anytime that Taipei plays Beijing, either at home or in Beijing, it'll be carried nationwide on television over there. We're going to make a lot of basketball fans in a hurry."

Later more franchises could be opened within countries and the restrictions on the nationalities, he said, so China could not forever dominate a less-endowed Hong Kong.

He expected the league would have as a commissioner "someone like" former NBA executive Scotty Sterling and the six teams would play a five-month season of 30 regular-season games plus playoffs and an All-Star game.

"There is some pressure on us to add more teams," he said, mentioning Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. "If we did that we would probably have a 54-game season and extend it to maybe seven months."

He said training camp will begin this September with play to start in October and run through February.