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BEIJING (Reuters) - The Washington Wizards are visiting China from the United States this week to mark the 30th anniversary of a trail-blazing tour which aimed to help build diplomatic ties between two recently estranged nations.
The focus has now shifted toward business but they remain proud of their role in bringing the countries closer together.
Hall of Famer Wes Unseld and his team mates were the first NBA team to play in China when they arrived in 1979 at the personal invitation of paramount Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping just after the U.S. normalized relations with Beijing.
"It's very rewarding to think that 30 years ago, we started the process of building the relationship between our two countries," Unseld, now 63, told a news conference on Tuesday.
"It's very humbling for someone like me to think that I shared a very small part of that."
The process has gone a long way since, not least for the NBA which now has its own operation in China and has grown into the most popular professional sports league in the world's most populous nation.
Such popularity has not been missed and the marquee names of North American basketball, including Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, have flocked to China for promotional appearances this close season.
So, as well as marking the anniversary of their trip and putting on basketball clinics on this 10-day tour, the Wizards were also looking to build business relationships.
"Basketball has become very popular in China," said the team's president of business operations Peter Biche.
"I think there are reasons for our organization to have relations with China, whether that be a business relationship or a diplomatic relationship, I think there's a future for our organization here."
"The economic and financial connections between the U.S. and China have grown so dramatically in the last five to 10 years," he added.
"That's part of why we're here, to develop relationships in the corporate community as well."
Unseld joked he had thought of another way the organization might benefit from the longevity of their association with China.
"I just discovered that Yao Ming's father was on the team I played against in Shanghai 30 years ago," he said, referring to the Houston Rockets' All Star Chinese center.
"I have one request to make, if you have any more Yao Mings, please send them to the Washington Wizards."
(Editing by Ken Ferris)
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