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As NBA shoots for the stars in growing game, China and Europe are a ‘one-off’ — for now

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The Timberwolves defeated the Warriors, but that wasn’t the biggest story line in China.
USA TODAY Sports

SHENZHEN, China — If the NBA ever has a team here, you wonder if the energy level from all these hoops-crazed fans would taper off at some point.

There’s an absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder feeling to this relationship between Chinese fans and the Association, with the passion pouring out every time they set eyes on the biggest stars who visit a few times a year. You could see it everywhere on Thursday afternoon at the Shenzhen University Center, where the Minnesota Timberwolves downed the defending champion Golden State Warriors 111-95 in front of a sellout crowd that oohed and aahed at every turn.

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But as much as commissioner Adam Silver would love to test that theory, and to grow this game in more permanent ways overseas, there’s no way that’s happening in Asia or Europe anytime soon. Unless, that is, moguls such as Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk or Virgin CEO Richard Branson are able to follow through on their plans for high(er)-speed travel in the next few years.

Be it by rocket or supersonic aircraft, the idea of cutting this 14-hour flight from America’s West Coast to China in half (if not much more) is something that Silver and so many others in the NBA would welcome. Late last month, Musk gave a presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Australia in which he shared his hopes of using reusable rockets to shuttle people anywhere in the world in under an hour.

Branson, meanwhile, has partnered with the startup company, Boom, to create planes that cruise at 1,451 miles per hour (New York to London in three hours and 20 minutes, with supersonic flight for passenger planes scheduled for 2023. And as Silver told USA TODAY Sports recently, the dare-to-dream possibilities mean that he’ll remain open to the head-spinning possibilities.

“We can play games in China and Europe, or occasional preseason games as a one-off, but under existing airline technology, the planes aren’t fast enough to at least play in the current frame work of our regular season,” Silver, who did not attend Thursday’s game but plans on attending the Warriors-Wolves preseason game in Shanghai on Sunday, said by phone. “(But) it may be something we’ll be looking at over the coming years, is what a regular season schedule look like a decade from now.”

The premise, of course, is that an 82-game schedule would likely be too taxing if there was intercontinental travel added to the schedule.

“There’s nothing magical about 82 games,” Silver continued. “It’s been in place for 50 years, but for the long-term planning of the league, as we learn more about the human body and the wear and tear of travel and the competitive landscape … invariably we’ll look at the regular season. And in looking at the regular season, it may create more opportunities for international franchises.”

The next best thing, it seems, just might be Mexico City.

For all the focus on cities such as Seattle (which has a $600 million renovation in the works for KeyArena), Las Vegas and Louisville as top candidates for expansion, Silver has long been intrigued by the notion of making Mexico City the league’s next addition. As he noted, though, there are also “hurdles politically and economically to do it.”

“We’re not looking at expansion at the moment, but at the time we do turn to expansion, just as we’ve had enormous success in Canada with the (Toronto) Raptors, we do see enormous opportunity in Mexico City and think it could become the franchise for Latin America,” Silver said.

“Mexico City is a city with over 20 million people, a country of 130 million people, and a huge Mexican American population. We’re only looking at it from a more general standpoint – and we’re playing games (there) again in Dec. (the Brooklyn Nets are playing against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 7 and the Miami Heat on Dec. 9). It’s something we’ll continue to keep eye on.”

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