SHANGHAI, China When asked for directions to the Qinzhong Forest Sports City Arena, the reserved bellboy at the Renaissance Shanghai Yuyuan Hotel suddenly got excited and very animated.
"Ooh, USA-Russia basketball match," said the young man, with the English name of "Dalton" on his name tag. "Kobe Bryant, LeBron James ...."
When reminded there were several members of the Utah Jazz playing the game, there was little hesitation in his response.
"Yes, Boocher," said Dalton, mispronouncing Carlos Boozer's name, "and Deron Williams."
And for Russia? That one took a bit of thinking, but only for a couple of seconds.
"Oh, yes, Kirilenko AK-47," said Dalton, well aware of Andrei Kirilenko's nickname.
Yes, a half world away from Salt Lake City and EnergySolutions Arena, the Jazz trio of Kirilenko, Williams and Boozer are known, recognized and appreciated.
Sunday's contest was the first of the two Toyota International Challenge games for Team USA in Shanghai, the largest city in the People's Republic of China. Next up for the Americans is a Tuesday game against Australia, headlined by another name with Utah ties former University of Utah star Andrew Bogut, who recently signed a new mega-deal with the Milwaukee Bucks.
All the games are warm-ups to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Summer Games, some 900 miles away. The Summer Games kick off with Friday night's opening ceremonies, with men's basketball preliminary pool play starting Sunday.
The 14,523-seat Qinzhong Arena, which is an hourlong taxi ride southwest from central Shanghai, served as the world's hotbed of hoops for a rain-soaked Sunday afternoon, as if NBA basketball and Chinese culture got thrown together in a wok of major proportions.
Ticket scalpers started flagging down potential buyers more than a mile from the arena. Tickets sold online from $20 to $500 each, but in a country known for its knock-offs of jade and pearls, watches and clothes and where currency is vigilantly scrutinized at every transaction, who knew if what was being waved around by the scalpers was legit or not.
Announcements and play highlights were made over the public-address system in both English and Chinese, with a strong showing of international fans at the sold-out game.
Many fans sported inflatable "Thunder-sticks," and plenty knew enough to start chanting "M-V-P! M-V-P!" when Bryant lined up for free throws early in the contest.
More mix-and-match during the game: Four 10-minute quarters, a trapezoid lane and all the other trappings of international basketball; coverage by China's sports network; Chinese cheerleaders performing.
Plus, there was "Cotton-eye Joe" during a time-out and a half-time performance from a group of young men who mixed Chinese acrobatics, martial arts and some hip-hop dance moves.
Think about it: when was the last time you went to an NBA game and watched someone break a thick wooden rod over the head of an accomplice?
The most feverish cheers were saved for Bryant and James, the uberstars of Team USA and the NBA. But the Chinese cheered both teams equally including Williams draining a 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter and Kirilenko's rubber-man moves around the rim.
The final score was secondary. Officially, the United States won 89-68, never trailing.
No, Shanghai got a pre-Olympic taste of what's around the corner at the Summer Games. Sunday's fans didn't have to travel to Beijing, and they didn't have to pay ticket prices of Olympic proportions.
And the Chinese fans loved every minute of it. They cheered the highlights. They good-naturedly razzed the mistakes, including a Kobe misfire on a breakaway
They weren't necessarily pro-American fans, nor were they pro-Russian fans.Instead, Shanghai's Qizhong Arena was full of pro-basketball fans.