As the 2008-2009 season of the National Basketball Association (NBA) prepares to start later this week, NBA fans should already know that when Yao Ming began playing in 2002, he opened up professional basketball to aspiring Chinese back in China, and to Chinese Americans as a potential fan and marketing segment for his team, the Houston Rockets, and the NBA in general.

Following in his footsteps is Yi Jianlian, the second high-profile NBA player to come from China. After playing his rookie season last year for the Milwaukee Bucks, Yi was traded and is now set to play for the New Jersey Nets.

The Nets happen to be located in the New York City metropolitan area, home to an estimated 650,000 Chinese Americans. As the NY Times reports, these numbers and the potential revenue from the Chinese American fan base in squarely in the minds of the Nets organization:

Yi’s name recognition runs high, and people in Chinatown said they would go watch him, if time and funds allow it, but would not necessarily go out of their way to cross the Hudson River. . . .

The Nets are hopeful that Yi connects with the nearly 650,000 Chinese-Americans in the New York area and beyond, reeling in a coveted new fan base. And like Yao, the Houston Rockets center, Yi carries global appeal in hailing from the world’s most populous nation. . . .

“He has to build a relationship with the community,” said Sunny Moy, president of the Asian American Youth Center. “Right now, everybody is more into Yao because Yi is still nearly a rookie. Yi is a good player, I’ve seen him play, but he has to donate tickets, connect with the kids in order to have an effect.” . . .

The Nets are offering a four-game package aimed at the Chinese-American community for games against the Rockets, the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Rockets and the Lakers feature the league’s two other Chinese players in Yao and the rookie Sun Yue.

The Nets hired a multicultural marketing agency and are planning game-night promotions that include a night serving as Yi’s interpreter and a celebration of the Chinese New Year.

As I’ve said before, whether Americans like/want it or not, the world is getting smaller and the many manifestations of globalization will only continue to become more prominent in American society. In this case, it comes in the form of the Nets trying to market Yi to the Chinese Americans in the NYC metro area and the 1.3 billion Chinese back in China.

It’s also nice to see Asian athletes continue to become more popular in professional sports. At the same time, as I’ve also said in the past, it would also be nice if Asian American (as opposed to international Asian) athletes get to enjoy the same kind of popularity.

Fortunately, with the recent rise and fame of athletes like professional golfer Anthony Kim, to name the most recent example, we (hopefully) seem to be moving slowly in that direction.

I’m not a huge golf fan, but I have to admit that I sat glued to my TV yesterday as I watched the final round of the biennial Ryder Cup tournament between the U.S. and Europe. As you probably know already, the U.S. team shocked the Europeans by recapturing the Ryder Cup, only the second time they’ve won it in the past 13 years.

One of the big reasons for their success was the play of 23 year old Korean American Anthony Kim. I have to admit that I had never heard of Anthony Kim before, let alone knew that he’s currently #6 on the PGA’s money list this season, but as as ESPN reports, Kim made a huge contribution to the U.S. team’s success:

Anthony Kim celebrates his win over Sergio Garcia at the Ryder Cup © John Sommers II/Reuters

“We had a lot of fun today,” Mickelson said after twice coming from 3 down with Kim, earning a half point in their morning foursomes match and a full point in their afternoon four-ball. “I love playing with this guy. He has a lot of talent, a lot of game. It was fun for me to be with that youthful exuberance today. It’s infectious.

We played with a lot of heart and emotion. We were down in both matches and came back to win one and tied the other. It was a hard, fun day.” “This day, by far, was the best he’s ever played in the Ryder Cup,” said Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s longtime caddie.

So that’s what it takes? Some youthful exuberance? Mickelson truly is the grizzled veteran to Kim’s wide-eyed rookie. They are 15 years apart in age, and when Mickelson played in his first Ryder Cup in 1995 (and went 3-0, by the way), Kim was a mere 10 years old.

“He’s always been an idol of mine, someone I wanted to emulate,” Kim said. Who’d have thought it would take a 23-year-old to bring out the best in Mickelson?

In the final sets of individual matches on Sunday, it was truly impressive to see Kim completely dominate Sergio Garcia, one of the top PGA players in the world. (May I also add that Kim was riding around the course with a rather attractive blond woman sitting next to him, who frequently patted him on the back — his girlfriend?).

At any rate, I already knew that there are many Asian and Asian American women professional golfers, but aside from Tiger Woods who’s half Asian American, I did not know of any other high-profile Asian American male professional golfer. I am delighted to finally hear about Anthony Kim and as one of his new fans, I look forward to following his career for a long time.