China embraces basketball

October 1, 2006

  By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY

GUANGZHOU, China — Though the U.S. national team’s comfortable 119-
73 victory Monday against China in a World Championship tune-up here
was no surprise, the show highlighted basketball’s growing
popularity in the world’s most populous nation.
“I started loving the NBA with the Dream Team and the ‘Space
Flyer,’ ” as Michael Jordan is known to Chinese fans, said retired
soldier Donghai Chen, 64.

” ‘Dream Seven’ is not as good as the first,” Chen added in using
the popular Chinese name for this U.S. men’s team, the seventh crop
of NBA stars since the 1992 squad that electrified the Barcelona
Olympics. “But I like some of the new players, especially Dwyane
Wade, and they are still the best in the world.”

It will take time, though, for Asia to get truly excited about this
U.S. group of NBA stars, said Tim Noonan, TV basketball analyst in
China and editor of the Asian publication SportView.

“The buzz will be muted until Tokyo,” Noonan said of the FIBA World
Championship, which will start August 19. “Except for (LeBron) James
and Wade, the ‘Dream Seven’ team is not so well known in China. It
needs the highlights on TV first. Having Kobe Bryant (out with an
injured knee) here would have made a huge difference.”

Though high ticket prices ($85-$477) meant Chen decided to watch his
heroes on television and the 10,000-seat stadium was not at full
capacity, those fans who attended seemed to go home happy.

“The score doesn’t matter; it was great to see all those famous
players in the flesh,” said construction entrepreneur Li Changbiao,
38, who has watched the NBA on TV for years. “My 1,860-yuan ticket
(roughly $235) was definitely worth the price.”

Those sentiments are music to the ears of NBA commissioner David
Stern, who revealed Sunday in Guangzhou that next year he plans to
hold regular-season games for the first time in China.

“China is the second biggest market to the NBA,” Stern said.

Yao brings honor to game

Blanket media coverage and hundreds of cheering fans met the U.S.
team’s arrival in China; Stern himself has been plastered in
pictures all over the local media. It was a far cry from 1990, when
Stern arrived in Beijing only to be snubbed by the national
broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV).

One official then warned him that Chinese sports broadcasting
should “bring honor to the motherland,” not merely entertain.

“Nobody at CCTV even seemed to know who David Stern was,” American
writer Brook Larmer recounted in his book Operation Yao Ming.

They do now. After years of patient marketing — and the rise and
rise of 7-6 Yao from Shanghai — CCTV broadcast Monday’s game to an
audience of hundreds of millions. Dr. Naismith’s winter pastime is
challenging to be China’s No. 1 sport.

“Basketball used to be behind soccer, but now it’s pulling level,”
said Hu Jiashi, vice president of the China Basketball Association,
co-organizer of Monday’s game. Hu estimated that 300 million to 400
million fans either play or watch the game regularly.

Professional basketball in China is only a decade old. Hu counted up
to 700 professional players, spread over 90 teams in the China
Basketball Association (CBA) and its female counterpart (WCBA).

The number has not increased dramatically, “but the quality has,” Hu

The salaries of some reach $120,000 a year, though younger players
get by on $1,250 to $2,500.

The NBA, Olympic basketball and the Chinese government’s efforts
have spurred the game’s growth in China, Hu said. But the true
secret weapon, at 7-6, is hardly inconspicuous.

“Yao Ming is the key factor in building fan support; the masses love
him. He’s a great player,” Hu said.

The Houston Rockets center did not play in Monday’s exhibition
because of an injured left foot, but he took to the court to thank
fans and promise a better performance next time.

More than packaging

The local fans cheered their illustrious opponents, too, especially
the dunks of LeBron James, the leading scorer with 22 points.

“The fashion and celebrity (of the NBA) is important, too, but
that’s just the packaging,” Hu Jiashi said. “The high technical
level is the most important factor.”

Tell that to the guys shooting hoops Monday, in baggy NBA gear, at
the courts beside Sports City Highsun department store in downtown

“The NBA is a very cool sport,” said college student and English
major Huang Guodong, 22. “It’s the fashion, the attitude and the

Inside the shop, Huang reverently touched a $75 USA top emblazoned
with the name of his favorite player — James. Then he looked at the
Yao China jersey, which, at $63, was still beyond his student budget.

The U.S. players who made this trip raved after the game about China
and the reaction of local fans.

“They’re excited and very appreciative of having us here,” said San
Antonio Spurs swingman Bruce Bowen.

Guangzhou also left a deep impression.

“It’s like New York City magnified 30 times. You see building after
building, but you don’t see a lot of disasters. They are serious
about quality,” Bowen said. “I am really looking forward to the
Olympics in 2008.”

BEIJING — It’s the greatest basketball drive since James Naismith
spread his sport worldwide with the Bible-packing, ball-playing
missionaries of the YMCA.

Beijing sports official Yan Naxin is on a mission, too, but without
the religious overtones.

Yan has visited more than 100 villages around Beijing and had
basketball courts installed in 2,300. Only 1,500 to go with another
million or so around the country.

“I feel proud every time I see a basketball court,” Yan
said. “Unlike many government officials, I can see and touch the
results of my work.”

Touching every corner of a village court on a recent afternoon was
10-year-old Chen Chi, showing off his ball-spinning skills to anyone
who would watch.

“I play every day — unless my parents keep me in to do homework,”
said Chen, a native of West Horse village, outside Beijing. “I want
to be Yao Ming. It’s more fun than driving a truck or selling
socks,” which is what his parents do.

The court Chen dominates was built as a test run of the public-
health scheme announced in April to lay basketball courts the length
and breadth of China.

Behind the scheme stands Zhang Dong, 49, an official at the Mass
Sports Department of China’s sports ministry. But the political
backing goes right to the top.

“This is part of (Chinese President Hu Jintao’s) New Socialist
Countryside plan,” Zhang said. “What’s important now is a new focus
on disadvantaged groups like peasants. We didn’t do this before.”

For $3,500, funded by central or local governments depending on the
wealth of the area, Zhang can build a court with nets, plus two
table-tennis tables. While acknowledging that Chinese peasants have
more serious needs, such as sanitation and education, Zhang said
basketball is a winner for cost and speed.

“This is the smallest investment a government can make, the quickest
project to build, but the effect is the most obvious and is most
welcomed by the peasants,” Zhang said.

Locked in the hills north of Beijing, 15-year-old Wang Xujia and a
friend play on the new court built in Yangezhuang village. Wang
wears a replica Tracy McGrady uniform and regrets that the hills
blocked out television coverage of Monday’s exhibition between the
United States and China.

Village elders are pleased the court keeps youngsters away from the
dangerous road, gambling on cards and playing in mountain streams.
Wang shoots hoops for another reason.

“I want to play for the Rockets!”


October 1, 2006



October 1, 2006