SPORTSDOC- Cleaned up: Will new NBA image play in Beijing?

No matter how unpopular Kobe Bryant is in America right now, millions of screaming Chinese fans will soothe his battered ego. One would be hard pressed to find a more basketball-loving country than China, where Michael Jordan is still more popular than Madonna, not to mention Chairman Mao.

Not that the Chinese government would come out and say that NBA players are more popular than King Communist, but actions speak louder than words. Scanning our roster, I was able to figure that at least a third of the Dream Team boasts rap sheets. Just as the 12 gold-medal hopefuls didn't have to try out for the team, it seems they didn't have to fill out a visa questionnaire either.

"Do you have a criminal record in China or any other country?"

According to the 2005 book, Out of Bounds: Inside the NBA's Culture of Rape, Violence, and Crime, by Jeff Benedict, 40 percent of NBA players have arrest records. I was able to identify four players on the U.S. Olympic team who not only have arrests, but convictions: Jason Kidd (battery in 2001), Carmelo Anthony (DUI in 2008), LeBron James (speeding at 101mph in a 65mph zone in 2008) and Deron Williams (providing false information to police in 2005). In this summer's Olympics, only 33.3 percent of our basketball players have criminal records. As far as the players go, the NBA is trying to clean up its act.

Someone should explain that to China. 

If you want to attend the Olympics in Beijing, I hope you started your paperwork about three years ago. China's new visa rules are brutal: proof of a hotel booking, round-trip airline tickets, and in some cases, a letter of invitation. And that's for someone who's never even jaywalked.

The closer the Olympics, the more arbitrary and sneaky the Chinese government becomes. Migrant workers and foreign students must leave Beijing, borders will be closed, and all outdoor parties are banned: China has gone restriction-crazy. Rudy Giuliani couldn't do a better job. 

Though it seems excessive to ban parties to keep out the riff-raff, we must remember what China is letting in its borders. With foreign tourism gutted for the summer, it's mostly Chinese citizens who will attend the Olympic Games. While gymnastics and track and field will be well attended (as always), it's basketball everyone wants to see.

Rather, it's the basketball players everyone wants to see. 

I'm not going to win the geography bee anytime soon, but I know that China and Japan are not the same country. However, there are certain cultural phenomena that know no border. Hip-hop and gangsta culture are easily the most prolific.

In 2000, The New Yorker published a small article in its "Talk of the Town" section. This article, unlike most, wasn't about someone who died under a bookcase or waged war on pigeons. "Glorious Mosaic Dept. Young Japanese in Blackface Invade Downtown" had nothing to do with birds.

In Asia, homage to hip-hop doesn't begin and end with jerseys, baggy jeans, and grillz. Try blackface and afros, soul food and cornrows. This is Far East hip-hop: Asian teenagers in full pancake makeup emulating the most visible and most popular aspect of American culture. The kids are still doing it, long after their idols have stopped.

What China is letting into Beijing isn't just a basketball team; it's the ultimate symbol of all that's cool in America, at least in the eyes of millions of Asian teenagers. Are they ready to see players in business casual?

In 2005, the NBA banned bling, "hip-hop dress,"and sunglasses indoors: the works. "The players have been dressing in prison garb the last five or six years," LA Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "All the stuff that goes on, it's like gangster, thuggery stuff. It's time."

They say trends take a while to work their way around the globe. If China and its youth are prepared for Snoop, they will be sorely disappointed. It's unfortunate Paul Pierce won't be there to pass along his wisdom to the fans who expect medallions instead of sportcoats.

"When I saw the part about chains, hip-hop, and throwback jerseys, I think that's part of our culture," Pierce told the Associated Press. "I love my job. I love playing basketball more than I love getting fined and getting suspended."