NEW YORK (AP) -The NBA formed NBA China on Monday, strengthening its business interests in the region and perhaps paving the way for a bolstered professional league in the country.
The new entity arrives seven months before the summer Olympics in Beijing, when basketball will be one of the showcase events. American players such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade are well known in China, and the Chinese team has NBA All-Star Yao Ming and rookie Yi Jianlian.
``We're anticipating that basketball will be one of the hottest venues at this summer's Olympics and in fact may be the ideal launching pad for an expanded Chinese league,'' deputy commissioner Adam Silver said. ``We see again that there's an opportunity to grow the game and grow the business and turn what is now a small operation in terms of their current league into something much larger.''
Five partners will invest $253 million to acquire 11 percent of the company, which will handle everything from merchandising and marketing to television and other media, in preferred equity. They are ESPN, Bank of China Group Investment, Legend Holdings Limited, Li Ka Shing Foundation and China Merchants Investments.
The NBA enjoys great popularity in China, where it became the first American sports league to play games in 2004. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic played exhibition games in Shanghai and Macau before this season.
``The opportunity for basketball and the NBA in China is simply extraordinary,'' NBA commissioner David Stern said in a statement. ``The expertise, resources and shared vision of these immensely successful companies will help us to achieve the potential we see in the region.''
The NBA has worked for years to expand its presence in China, where Silver said there are an estimated 300 million people playing basketball. Last year, the Chinese national team was invited to play against NBA teams in the Las Vegas summer league, and a team of players from the NBA Development League competed in a tournament against other national teams in China.
Silver called NBA China a ``partnership'' with the Chinese Basketball Association, where Yao and Yi both played before moving to the NBA. The NBA's presence could help improve that league, which isn't as strong as top American or European ones, or perhaps lead to the formation of another one.
``Just as they're demonstrating with the Beijing Olympics that they're opening their country to the world, they're inviting us in as a partner in the CBA,'' Silver said. ``I think they see the NBA as an opportunity for themselves to grow the game at a faster pace than they otherwise would on their own.''
Tim Chen, the former CEO of Microsoft Greater China, had already been hired in October to serve as the CEO of NBA China. He is based in Beijing, another office is in Shanghai, and Silver said there will be one in Guangzhou.
Stern, Silver, NBA president of global marketing partnerships and international business operations Heidi Ueberroth, representatives of the investors, and owners Herb Simon of the Indiana Pacers and Glen Taylor of the Minnesota Timberwolves will make up the board of directors.
``It's something we're very excited about. It signals the kind of opportunity that's available both for the NBA and the growth of the game of basketball,'' Silver said. ``It's the culmination of 20 years of work in China, but having said that it's really just the beginning of the opportunity.''

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