SHANGHAI — The Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets tipped off on Thursday night in Shanghai in, undoubtedly, the most geopolitically important exhibition game in N.B.A. history. Yezi Zhang, a college student, was there, too, and her emotions were decidedly mixed.
Ms. Zhang, a 24-year-old from the city of Hangzhou, was among a few thousand Chinese fans who showed up at the Mercedes-Benz Arena despite the N.B.A.’s clash with the Chinese government. Beijing officials have put growing pressure on the N.B.A. to apologize after an executive at the Houston Rockets tweeted his support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The N.B.A., citing free speech, has said the executive won’t be punished.
If the league doesn’t fully apologize, Ms. Zhang said, then she and the league might be over.
“At first I was quite happy about the game, but then after the recent issue I started feeling quite awkward,” she said, adding that she dare not post images of the game online for fear of disapproval from friends.
“It’s O.K. to chase the star players,” she said, “but we shouldn’t do it at the cost of the dignity of the motherland.”
The game on Thursday could represent the beginning of a thaw between the league and a country that accounts for a huge number of its fans. Patriotic vitriol against the N.B.A. appeared to subside online in China late on Thursday before the game began. Still, it was not clear how long it might take for China and the N.B.A. to fully resume their decades-long embrace.
Basketball once united China and the United States, the world’s two largest economies, offering perhaps the most visual symbol of bonds so deeply intertwined that some big thinkers have referred to the two as “Chimerica.” Now it threatens to drive them apart.
Or as China’s jokers say online, referencing the first attempts at diplomacy between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in 1971, “China-U.S. relations began with ping-pong, and they’ve ended with basketball.”
China has demanded that the league make amends. An American backlash prompted Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, to defend the right of the league’s athletes and officials to say what they like.
Chinese companies are now suspending their sponsorships. The Chinese state media is blocking exhibition games. And China’s millions of N.B.A. fans are caught in the middle.
Severing that bond — built over decades of cultivation by an American sports league that long ago saw promise in a growing, prosperous China — won’t be easy. But if pushed, many fans said, they will sever it for the sake of loyalty.
“This year I think the Lakers have a good chance to win it all,” said Lin Wenwen, a 21-year-old student and longtime Lakers fan who was crushed by the cancellation of the team’s open practice on Wednesday because she could not afford a ticket to the game. “This was a great chance to see them. It’s a shame.”
Still, when asked who was to blame, she thought for a moment and said, “The young losers in Hong Kong.”
The game on Thursday kicked off in an arena where plenty of seats still stood empty. The usually prolific array of advertisements were absent from the stands and rafters. People outside the arena waved small Chinese flags. On one popular basketball forum, funds were being raised Thursday to buy 10,000 national flags to bring to the game.
Many Chinese N.B.A. fans said the choice was an easy one. Support for the protesters in Hong Kong, they say, constitutes foreign meddling in Chinese affairs. Thanks in part to China’s propaganda arms, many also mistakenly believe the pro-democracy protesters are broadly calling for full independence from the mainland. (Some are, but independence is not among their official demands.) Many see that as a direct assault on Chinese identity.
Mr. Mao, a 23-year-old law student, is such a big fan that he spent hours on Wednesday in front of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Shanghai, hoping to meet LeBron James at a fan event. He also plans to fly about 900 miles to the city of Shenzhen on Saturday for a Lakers-Nets exhibition rematch.
But he equated support for the Hong Kong protesters with racism, echoing a common point in the state media, and said that patriotism comes before fandom. He questioned the difference between the N.B.A.’s support of free speech and the lifetime ban the league put on Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, in 2014 for his racist comments.
“It’s a double standard,” said Mr. Mao, adding that “the issue of sovereignty is as serious as the issue of racism.”
Basketball’s roots in China go way back. Christian missionaries introduced the game in the late 19th century. Mao tolerated it when other Western entertainments were discouraged. In 1979, after Mao’s death led to China’s opening up to the world, the Washington Bullets became the first N.B.A. team to play in China when they came to Beijing for a pair of friendly games with the Chinese Army.
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.
“Everyone is feeling very patriotic,” he said.
“And we still have the C.B.A.,” he added, referring to the Chinese Basketball Association. “Though of course they’re not as good.”
Some N.B.A. fans said the game would still find love in China.
“A complete ban would never work,” said Liu Zhe, a 29-year-old Kobe Bryant superfan who himself goes by the name Kobe. A resident of the northeastern city of Harbin, he made headlines last year when he unknowingly bought the former Lakers star’s stolen high school jersey. (He later returned it.) “If they can’t hold the games in China, fans can still travel abroad and jump over the Great Firewall to watch them.”
On Thursday afternoon, Wu Shengjie, 22, came with a group of friends to play at the outdoor basketball courts in Dongdan in the heart of Beijing, China’s rough equivalent to New York’s Rucker Park.
Chinese hip-hop blared over loudspeakers. Giant Nike posters of Yi Jianlian, a former N.B.A. player who now plays in China, loomed over the courts.
“They really hurt the hearts of the Chinese people,” Mr. Wu said dejectedly as he watched from the sidelines while his friends played a pickup game.
“The incident happened so suddenly, I can’t understand it,” said Mr. Wu, an electrical engineering major who has been playing basketball since the age of 7. “Now, my heart is very lost.”
Paul Mozur reported from Shanghai, and Amy Qin from Beijing. Lin Qiqing contributed research. Zoe Mou contributed from Beijing.