BEIJING - Tracy McGrady will make one of the most hotly anticipated debuts in Chinese basketball history this weekend after a fevered build-up in which he caused a near-riot at one of his sell-out appearances.
The hype surrounding McGrady, a former team-mate of Yao Ming, has sent excitement soaring for the start of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), which will feature three former NBA All Stars for the first time.
McGrady, 33, who played with Yao at the Houston Rockets during a 15-year NBA career, and fellow All Stars Stephon Marbury and Gilbert Arenas head a cohort of 28 ex-NBA players who have made a new start in China.
Their presence has helped persuade fans to ignore hefty price rises and snap up tickets for the 17-strong league, which precedes an eight-team championship play-off in February.
"McGrady will ensure that attendance in every arena throughout China will rise," commented Basketball Pioneers, China's leading hoops newspaper.
"McGrady is playing a huge role in raising the brand image and marketing power of the CBA."
Marbury's Beijing Ducks, the reigning champions, open the season against Yao-owned Shanghai Sharks on Saturday, while the Fujian Sturgeons will host McGrady's Qingdao Eagles on Sunday in a game which sold out weeks ago.
McGrady caused a sensation when he signed for Qingdao last month, selling out each of the club's three pre-season exhibition matches against a team of American players.
The seven-time NBA All Star scored 34 points in 28 minutes in the second game, but there were angry scenes when he played only 98 seconds of the final warm-up this week.
Fans hurled water bottles and other objects and chanted for McGrady to play, bringing the game to an early halt as the shooting guard was ushered from the court by security guards, the Sina.com web portal said.
"China is the place where I have the most loyal and passionate fans. I played in the NBA for 15 years. The time was just perfect for me to come here to play," McGrady told reporters earlier.
"I look forward to building chemistry with my Chinese team-mates and seeing what will happen. I look forward to bringing a championships here."
In Qingdao, a coastal city famous for its beer, McGrady will team with centre D.J. Mbenga who won two NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and 2010.
He will look to follow the trail blazed by Marbury, who last year led Beijing to their first ever CBA title and was honored with a bronze statue outside Wukesong arena, the basketball venue of the 2008 Olympics.
Marbury, now embarking on his fourth season in the CBA, has also traded on his huge popular appeal to expand his Starbury line of sports shoes in China, branded with a snappy "love is love" advertisement campaign.
The 35-year-old multi-millionaire had a reputation for bad off-court behavior in the NBA, much like Arenas, who has signed for the Sharks after a two-week try-out.
Nicknamed "Agent Zero," Arenas, 30, was a three-time All Star in the NBA, but was suspended in 2009 after he brought a handgun into the locker room of the Washington Wizards, his team at the time.
The Sharks are coached by former NBA coach Dan Panaggio and also include ex-Charlotte Hornets power forward D.J. White and two Chinese national team players, point guard Liu Wei and former US collegiate centre Max Zhao.
Beijing's title defence will also be contested by seven-time CBA champions Guangdong Southern Tigers, who have been bolstered by the return of power forward Yi Jianlian from the Dallas Mavericks.
Guangdong, who lost to Beijing in last year's finals, have also signed NBA veterans Ike Diogu and Terrence Williams.
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