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Basketball in China Isn’t Just 'Some Thing'—It’s One of the Country’s Most Popular and Thriving Sports
Look, I’m from America. When I think basketball, I think … NBA. I think WNBA, NCAA, AND1 Streetball Tournaments, Harlem Globetrotters, NBA All-Star Weekend. I think 21, Horse, 3-point shootouts. I think Michael Jordan, Kobe—may he rest in peace—Lebron, Shaq. I think Space Jam, Coach Carter, Love and Basketball, He Got Game.
The truth is: Never in my life did I think China. Yao Ming, basketball and China--sure. But, what else? Any other household names? Wait, does China even have a professional basketball league? Do the Chinese even like playing basketball?
Yep, that was the old me. But after living in China for some odd number of years, turns out, basketball isn’t just some mere sport across the Mainland—It’s a thriving national pastime filled with rich history, culture, and a trailblazing future if China ‘plays’ it right.
A Little Background …
First things first, you may know that China has long favored sports like ping-pong, badminton, soccer, and gymnastics, but did you know that basketball has grown into arguably the most popular sport in the country?
Basketball courts are everywhere, from parks and recreational centers to villages, housing communities, gyms, and schools. There are hundreds of millions of people, especially young people, that play.
In order to gain an understanding of today’s thriving culture of basketball in China, one must start from the beginning…
In the Beginning …
The game of basketball was reportedly brought over from the US to China in 1895—4 years after its creation in 1891 by a Canadian living in Springfield, Massachusetts—by American YMCA missionaries.
Over time, basketball’s popularity spread like wildfire throughout China’s universities and political arenas. It was played by urban students and even used for exercise by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). By 1935, basketball was officially proclaimed as a national pastime of China.
The western game would go on to survive China’s civil wars, revolutions, and political shifts. Following the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, government officials made a conscious effort to utilize the game, and sports in general, to embolden their diplomatic relationships with governments and countries around the world.
The NBA in China …
Following the success of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” in the 1970’s, China and the US worked towards achieving a healthy relationship with their adversary across the Pacific.
By 1987, Sung Tao, of China, became the 1st Asian player drafted into the NBA by the Atlanta Hawks. That same year, NBA commissioner David Stern would sign a partnership with China’s CCTV—a State-run television program—for the rights to broadcast NBA games. The amount? Free of charge!
The deal proved to be a huge score in the long run. By 1999, Wang Zhizhi, drafted to the Dallas Mavericks, became the first player out of China to participate in a NBA game.
In 2002, Yao Ming, a 7ft. 6in. tall first draft pick by the Houston Rockets, and, undisputedly the most popular Chinese professional basketball player of all-time, created an even bigger explosion of the NBA and basketball’s popularity in China.
By 2004, the NBA would play its first game in China—the Houston Rockets vs Sacramento Kings.
In 2008, NBA China, a coalition organization formed to bridge the gap between the USA and Middle Kingdom’s basketball culture, was established to offer resources, outreach programs, events, marketing partnerships, broadcasts, and even pre-season NBA games, which are held in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing, across the country.
In 2015, the NBA signed a $700 million, 5-year deal with Tencent to promote its content across its market-dominating digital platforms in China.
Today, the NBA reigns king across social media amongst sports leagues in China, with over 200 million loyal followers tuning into games, highlights, and behind-the-scenes action.
Wait, is there a professional basketball league in China like the NBA?
Yes! With basketball’s growing recognition as an entertaining, valuable, and profitable sport, the Chinese Basketball Association, or CBA, was established in 1995.
Under the CBA, teams—20, as of today—are split between North and South China, much like the NBA’s East and West. Team names are derived of a city, province, or municipality, and nickname (except for one). Examples include the Beijing Ducks, Shanghai Sharks, and Guangzhou Loong Lions.
Forty-six games (2018-19) are played throughout a regular season. Like the NBA, the CBA’s got an annual All-Star Game that includes a 1 vs 1 competition, Slam Dunk Contest, 3-Point Shootout, Skills Competition, and Rising-Stars challenge between CBA players and hoopers belonging to the Chinese University Basketball Association. Think, NBA vs NCAA.
The CBA also pulls in a number of international players to its league, including former NBA players. Steve Francis, Delonte West, Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, and Metta World piece himself (Ron Artest), have all played in China’s CBA.
Perhaps no NBA player has received more success in the CBA than Stephon Marbury. He’s won numerous champions, MVP awards, had a statue built in his honor, and was even granted permanent residency in China.
The NBA vs CBA …
So, the big question: Is China’s CBA on par with America’s NBA? The short answer: No.
For one, CBA games, albeit fun to watch, just aren’t as exciting as NBA games. Watch a top 10 highlights of the week from the NBA and CBA, for instance, and here’s what you get:
The NBA reel? Slam dunks, crossovers, behind the back passes, alley oops, fast breaks, buzzer beaters, and game winning shots.
The CBA? Lay-ups, some decent haoqiu (good basketball plays), and maybe a 3-pointer or two.
What’s more, attending a live CBA game is a dramatically different experience from a NBA event. Mainlanders cheer and yell at players and referees just as much as any avid NBA fan, and as electrifying as the game can be, the arenas lack in high value entertainment and the staple nuances of attending live sports game.
There are cheerleaders, bilingual hosts, chants for the home team, and inevitably, blaring loud music, but there aren’t any kiss cams or mascots shooting t-shirts from a canon into the crowd. No nachos or foot-long hotdogs smoldered with toppings. No half-court shots or halftime concerts from famous artists. No dance troupes or chances to win cash or prizes.
It’s production value that goes into making the game, well, more than just a game, and in a head-to-head between the CBA and NBA, well, the CBA just doesn’t make the cut.
Pickup Games of Basketball in China …
There are millions of talented basketball players in China, but to speak freely, most pickup basketball games in China are fun, but, sloppy, and there are plenty of expats that’ll tell you.
Games are either 3 vs 3 or 4 vs 4—there’s rarely any 5 on 5 action. They are typically played half-court, with the first to reach 7, 9, or 11 points.
Teams are often decided by shooting free-throws or, having all players stand in a circle, and on a 3-count extend their hands out, either facing up or down. Those with hands up are on a team, and those down are on a team. It’s more of a … process of elimination kind of deal.
As for the style of play, two words come to mind in regards to pickup basketball in China: Individualistic and occasionally outlandish. Let me explain …
Street ballers in China play very individualistically, mainly due to a lack of basic fundamentals. Screens aren’t used. Pick and rolls aren’t commonplace. Passes aren’t sharp. Jump stops and pivots are nonexistent. Box-outs are missing. Ball handling just isn’t there, most of the time.
It starts young, too. Kids in China have plenty of access to basketball courts, but not necessarily to coaches and structured tournaments.
There aren’t any basketball leagues for elementary, middle, and high schools like there are in the West. There are some basketball camps, which are often led by foreigners, but they mostly exist in big cities. With that, basic skills and strategic plays that require team coordination aren’t developed, and thus, rarely are they put into effect in a pickup game.
Instead, pickup games characteristically consist of isolated plays, which leads to heaps of bizarre and impossible shots, lots of turnovers, and a ridiculous amount of WTF moments, so much so that it feels the game isn’t taken seriously—it’s just for amusement and exercise.
Other elements to note? Even though there’s less aggressiveness in playing pickup ball in China than in the West, fouls are frequently called.
Out of bounds is considered stepping out of the sidelines and under the basket, but not at half-court, even if the ball bounces all the way to the opposing hoop.
And lastly? Smoking. Chinese like to smoke their cigarettes, and it’s not uncommon to find entire squads taking smoke breaks in-between games.
Are they any super competitive pickup games? Of course! In my experience, most of the badass basketball players in China play pickup ball indoors. They’re usually older too, usually about 28yrs. and up.
Playing Pickup Games in China as a Foreigner …
There’s no doubt that as a foreigner in China, step foot anywhere and you’ll receive a good deal of attention. And well, on a basketball court, it’s no different, especially the more local the turf.
Many locals have never had any kind of solid interaction with foreigners, so there is often a ‘wow’ factor once you’ve landed on the blacktop.
There are players that eagerly want you on their team, and others that desperately want to play against you. A way of … testing all the hype, and/or a proud moment of competing against a foreigner.
The big defensive guys will size you up and do their best to shut you down. Your smaller teammates will go out of their way to get you the ball and see you in action.
Overall, everyone is generally very welcoming and easy-going on the court.
Moving Forward …
Basketball has staked its place as one of, if not thee, top sports played in China. Courts are widespread. Millions of people play daily. Millions more tune into the CBA and NBA to get their fix. Movies and reality TV series surrounding basketball culture are being produced. Deals and sponsorships between players and corporations are more lucrative than ever.
But, that isn’t enough. That given China’s billion-plus population and growing appetite for the sport, the most critical components in the continued growth and expansion of Chinese basketball lie not in profit-driven contracts and partnerships, but in allocating more resources towards nurturing local talent, especially from a young age, and developing innovative mainstream content for domestic and international consumption.
Basketball leagues should be accessible to primary, middle, and secondary school students. Experienced coaching staffs, whether local or foreign hires, could develop their skills, fundamentals, and knowledge of the game.
Participation in local and cross-country tournaments should be encouraged. Rivalries between schools and cities should exist to bring out competitiveness, enthusiasm, and pride. Any and every means available to foster talent from a young age should be implemented.
Of course, not everyone will become the next Yao Ming; however, this boost in competition and skills would help China produce more skilled players, and it turn, could change the country’s façade as not just a money-grab market in the sport, but a fierce competitor on the international stage in the game of basketball.
Secondly, China should invest in innovative ways to market the game of Chinese basketball locally and worldwide, which includes movies, documentaries, TV series, reality shows, video games, social media content, and subsidiary leagues.
In the US, the infamous NBA2K video game series has not only amplified fans’ and non-fans’ interest in basketball, but it’s also helped developed their basketball IQ and increased player’s notoriety.
ESPN’s 30 for 30 has not only covered significant moments in basketball culture and history, but has gathered in-depth details into the personal lives and opinions of former basketball athletes.
Movies like Space Jam—and its soon-to-be-released sequel starring Lebron James—have paired leading NBA stars with America’s favorite cartoon characters, all in the name of basketball, and have inspired generations of players.
We’ve had And1 Mixtape Tours, the Harlem Globetrotters, Big 3 tournaments. Each may offer their own adaptation of the game of basketball, but all contribute to the growth and value of the sport.
China must explore its own culture of basketball and share its interpretations of the sport with the world.
In the End …
One thing’s clear: China’s the ‘next big thing’. It’s on track to become the world’s largest economy—the biggest importer of this, exporter of that.
When it comes to the culture of basketball, the nation of 1.4 billion may be catching up to the US as the globe’s biggest market, but when it boils down to talent, influence, and global appeal, China’s still watching from the sidelines.
But now it’s game time. The buzzer’s gone off. The 24-hour shot clock’s been set. China’s stepped in. It’s got the ball. Now everyone’s watching.
So, China, what are you going to do with it?
Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer! -->
8/9/2020 09:27:54 pm
Very interesting and thoughtful article brother 👍 following your continuing adventures in china.
10/17/2022 11:47:02 pm
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10/20/2022 02:43:19 am
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