As NBA Stars Shy Away From Team USA, Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma Sees Opportunity to Grow in China

LAS VEGAS -- In its quest to field a star-studded squad for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China from August into mid-September, USA Basketball had to sift through all sorts of reasons for the NBA’s A-listers declining invitations. For Kyle Kuzma, the answer was simple—even though he had already been to China with Nike in June and will be back there with the Los Angeles Lakers in October for the NBA China Games against the Brooklyn Nets.

Honestly, I never even really thought about that,” Kyle tells CloseUp360 after Tuesday's Team USA practice in Las Vegas. “I just got the call, USA wanted me to come try out and I was ecstatic and went. Obviously, going to China then coming back and then going back with the Lakers, it's going to be fun, too. So it's been a great summer for me and a lot of fun.”

To some extent, China is starting to feel like home for Kuz. Flint, Michigan will always be his actual hometown. Getting drafted by the Lakers in 2017 made LA his NBA home, just as attending the University of Utah for three years before that made Salt Lake City his collegiate home.

But while China has a long way to go to catch up to those locales in his heart, Kuz has quickly found a comfort zone of his own in the world’s most populous nation. If he earns a spot on USA Basketball’s senior squad for the upcoming FIBA tournament, he will have been there four times in a 16-month span by the time the Lakers’ tip off the 2019-20 season against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Basketball's a global brand,” he says. “Asian culture and China, they love basketball. It's super fun for us to go over there, and really see the culture and how they interact and love the game. It's amazing.”

So far, the 24-year-old’s travels to the biggest basketball market on Earth have come courtesy of Nike. As an endorser of the Swoosh, Kuz has been to China on promotional tours with the brand each of the last two summers.

This year’s trip was about more than just hoops and shoes, though. Kuz spent the first half of that visit playing ball, teaching the game to locals and serving as an all-around basketball ambassador before using the remainder of his time over there to tend to his ever-expanding business portfolio.

“It's the tech land,” he says. “A lot of stuff out there, a lot of opportunities, a lot of the up-and-coming, big-time markets and ventures and companies, they come out there. It's all about trying to get out there, and see what you can do as a businessman and explore and gain relationships and do it all.”

As impressive as Kuz's rapid rise from relative unknown in college to rising star for the Lakers has been, his emergence as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist might be even more noteworthy. With the support of Vin Sparacio, his high school coach at Rise Academy-turned-manager, Kuz has trademarked and launched an apparel line with his personal moniker (“Kuzmania”), become a brand ambassador for GOAT, an online sneaker marketplace, and Humbyl, a fantasy sports cryptocurrency; and invested in BoKU Superfood and Trufan, a social media marketing company based in Toronto.

That portfolio—but especially the connection to GOAT—helped to land Kuz a guest spot on the pilot episode of The Boardroom, Kevin Durant’s show about the business of sports on ESPN+.

Spending so much time in China has only helped to expose Kuz's growing list of endorsements and business interests to a broader audience.

“It's good for the branding and that aspect of it all because, obviously, China is the biggest market out there,” he says. “It's huge for the global brand—not only me, but the NBA and basketball as a whole.”

In truth, Kuz wouldn’t likely be the off-court powerhouse that he’s becoming (if he isn’t already it) without the game he loves. It’s what got him to the NBA, wherein any player on any team can build a global brand by virtue of the international platform that the league offers. But playing for the Lakers—whose worldwide fandom seemingly dwarfs those of all 29 other teams combined—has only strengthened Kuz’s public profile while ensuring that he has an eager audience wherever he goes when he’s in China.

“It's been crazy,” he says of connecting with fans in China. “Obviously, playing for the Lakers, you get a little bit more bump out there, so going out there is super fun. Big crowds everywhere you go, [at] hotels. It's a great experience.”

Those raucous receptions only figure to grow if Kuz is one of 12 players chosen to represent the United States at the upcoming FIBA World Cup in China. While Team USA won’t feature the NBA’s A-listers this time around, there still figures to be plenty of star power on hand for the Red, White and Blue. And, really, given how dominant USA Basketball has been on the international stage, just about anyone who suits up for the program should expect a rock star’s welcome abroad.

Even that grand greeting might pale in comparison to the one Kuz is sure to encounter when he joins LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the new-look Lakers in Beijing and Shanghai for the NBA China Games against Kyrie Irving and the Nets in October.

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Those superstars have all spent ample time across the Pacific Ocean themselves. LeBron was a key contributor to the U.S. team that won gold at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and has toured the country with Nike on multiple occasions. Ditto (at least on the marketing front) for AD, Kyrie and KD, who will still be recovering from a torn Achilles when LA and Brooklyn convene in China.

When it comes to navigating the crowds and culture there, though, Kuz will be no slouch. He certainly knows his way around Chinese cuisine, with dim sum, pork dumplings and beef noodle soup among his local favorites. And like many NBA players these days, he has a direct line to his fans in the People’s Republic by way of his Chinese social media accounts, including Weibo.

So while some of his peers have flinched at committing to even one extended, basketball-related sojourn overseas, for Kuz, doing everything everywhere to capitalize on his current situation is precisely the point.

“It's what I had in mind,” he says of his hectic summer. “I mean, it's basketball at the end of the day. I love playing basketball, so can't take it for granted. When I get about 37, 38, I don’t want to look back and [think], Why didn't I play FIBA when I was 24? I want to just do everything with no regrets.”

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.