BEIJING The 1970s had its so-called pingpong diplomacy to warm up relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China.
The 2000s boast professional basketball, already so hot in China that there's no warm-up needed.
As for diplomacy, it was evident from the 11,083 fans packed into Beijing's Olympic Basketball Gymnasium for Sunday night's much-anticipated U.S.-China men's basketball game. They enthusiastically applauded every slam-dunk, every 3-pointer and every highlight-reel play for both teams from start to finish in the 101-70 U.S. victory.
The Chinese were even wildly cheering the pre-game dunks by favorite native son Yao Ming and the athletic American NBA superstars on the other end.
Sunday's game was so big, it drew more than one President Bush, with George W. joined in the stands by his father, George H.W. It also drew a standing-room-only mass of international journalists more than double the 600 available seats and triple-digit photographer locations.
Scheduled for Sunday's opening day of men's basketball competition at the Beijing Games, the U.S.-China time and date had long since been circled and anticipated.
For the Americans, it was the start of the 2008 Redemption Tour, trying to right the wrongs of a bad experience and a bronze medal from the Athens Games four years earlier.
For the Chinese, it provided a chance to show the host nation of 1.3 billion that it could keep up with the best of the NBA big boys.
And for the world, it allowed talk about a projected TV viewership at an estimated 1 billion.
"When the ratings come out, we'll see," said U.S. point guard Deron Williams, whose regular-season job is with the Utah Jazz. "Hopefully, you've played in the most-watched sporting event ever."
He added: "It was a great way to kick off the Olympics, against China in their building. The crowd was into it. ... They cheered for us as loud, if not louder, than they did for China."
Carlos Boozer, Williams' teammate both on the U.S. squad and with the Jazz, agreed. "I thought it would be more one-sided, but it was really mixed," Boozer said. "We're really proud to be a part of that the fans have loved us here."
And they love their home team, with the crowd's loudest, constant chants of "jia you" meaning "come one!" or "Go! Go! Go!" were for China, which played even with the U.S. for the first quarter and a half.
Like everyone else, Boozer knew going in that the game was huge. But when was his moment of confirmation?
"You know what it was? The tip, man," Boozer said, having watched the arena literally light up. "You saw all the (camera) bulbs flashing."
Yao, the 7-foot-6 Chinese center who stars for the NBA's Houston Rockets, had jokingly said he would retire if he and his team were to beat the heavily favored Americas.
Yao hit the game's first field goal a 3-pointer from the top of the key, no less, much to the ecstatic delight of the partisan home crowd."Everyone is proud," he said of the enthusiastic response to China's first Olympics, particularly with the basketball competition. "It felt great all the flags and people cheering. It was a great game, great atmosphere."
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