The N.B.A. sensed an opening. In 1985, the Chinese national team toured the United States at the invitation of the N.B.A. commissioner David Stern for what later became known as the N.B.A.-China Friendship Tour. Then in 1990, the league struck its first big revenue sharing deal with China Central Television, China’s state broadcaster, to air N.B.A. games in China — just in time for Michael Jordan’s first championship run with the Chicago Bulls.
A love affair was born, making the N.B.A. one of the first American brands to win a following across China. A generation of Chinese fans grew up crowding around dusty desktop monitors in college dorm rooms to watch fuzzy streams of N.B.A. games. When Yao Ming was drafted by the Rockets in 2002, it seemed to many in China like the completion, not the beginning, of their hoop dreams.
N.B.A. stars suddenly won millions of new followers — and sometimes awkward nicknames. LeBron James was “The Little Emperor.” Michael Jordan was the “Gang Boss.” Shaquille O’Neal, the hulking 7-foot-1 center, was “The Giant Shark,” though the historian Nick Kapur noted he became “O’Fat” after he began to put on the pounds.
Rong Qiang, 40, cut school to watch N.B.A. games in the 1980s and remains loyal to Mr. Jordan and the Bulls. “Their moves were just unbelievable,” he recalled nostalgically.
Mr. Rong was one of the few shoppers perusing the normally bustling flagship N.B.A. store in Beijing’s central shopping district, the league’s largest outside North America. Idle workers adjusted displays of jerseys, shoes and memorabilia. At one entrance, life-size bobbleheads of Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant clutching Chinese flags greeted would-be shoppers.
Despite his decades-long love of the league, Mr. Rong, a clothing merchandiser, said he was prepared to withdraw his support. He was hopeful that the fervor would eventually die down, as it did after previous flare-ups between China and Japan.
Still, he said, China seemed to be in a new era in which nationalistic sentiment had become the norm.