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Basketball, China's unofficial national sport

Basketball players from China are becoming increasingly recognized for their skill and passion in the West. CHI looks at the popularity of Yao Ming and NBA.

October 30th, 2002, was a pretty unremarkable day in most countries around the world, with the exception of China. Here, basketball fans were eagerly anticipating the NBA debut of national hero Yao Ming. Yao was primed to become the latest of a select number of Chinese nationals to join the NBA, and while most fans and analysts were undecided as to how the young Yao would fare in basketball’s big league, there was no doubt as to the impact and effect his debut was to have on basketball in China.

Yao was already well known to China’s basketball fans, having spent five years playing in the national championship for the Shanghai Sharks. But it was his move to the NBA which shook an already basketball-crazy country into a near frenzy. Many Chinese people fondly remember how proud they were to see Yao, at 7’6’’ and towering above his fellow players, take to the court that October day. Young kids already obsessed with the NBA, kids who spent hours on their local courts trying to imitate the plays and skill of superstar players such as Kobe Bryant, now had a new idol to look up to, and more importantly, he was one of their own.

Although Yao’s move to the NBA brought the popularity of the game to unprecedented levels, basketball was already a well-established sport with a massive fan base. Basketball was first introduced to China in the early 1900s by a group of American missionaries, and as the popularity of the game became widespread, it was very quickly adopted as a national sport. Such was the enthusiasm for basketball that many simply thought of it as a Chinese rather than American game. It was only with the broadcasting of NBA games in the 1990s that people began to realize the global nature of the game, and just how popular is was in the United States.

The first groups to play basketball in China were school kids and college students, and as China began to change politically and socially during the early part of the 20th century, members of the Communist Party also developed a fondness for the game. This support was crucial - when the Communist Party took power in 1949, many aspects of Western lifestyle were frowned upon, but not basketball. With the launching of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, people were only permitted to play two sports; table tennis (ping pong) and basketball. Troops of the People’s Liberation Army have long been encouraged to play basketball to improve teamwork skills and tactical awareness, and many of the country’s first leagues and tournaments were organized by the military.

Teamwork is also an important reason why so many young Chinese like to play basketball. In a country where the one-child policy means that children have no siblings to play with, brotherly and sisterly bonds are typically formed early on with school friends. This also translates into close friendships with teammates on the basketball court, particularly when teams are formed to compete in school or college championships. Many of China’s largest college and universities will hold annual championships with students from certain departments and schools playing for the same team. In such cases, basketball acts as an icebreaker, and is the basis for long term business and social friendships.

The NBA equivalent in China, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), is the country’s national basketball league. Professional teams from around China participate in an annual tournament that is similar in structure to the NBA’s regional championships. In China, the CBA is divided into two divisions - Northern and Southern - with the top teams of each playing each other in a series of playoffs for the national title. The most popular teams hail from the largest cities, such as the Beijing Ducks, the Shanghai Sharks and the Guangdong Tigers. Each CBA team is allowed to field a limited number of foreign players, and a few former NBA players such as Kenyon Martin are currently playing in the CBA.

CBA games are typically well attended and receive widespread media coverage. The domestic sports channel, CCTV 5, and other regional sports broadcasters will air most championship games live, with replayed coverage and regular news updates broadcast throughout the day and over the weekend. Basketball also receives nationwide coverage in the print media, with roughly a similar amount of coverage devoted to both NBA and CBA news and match reports.

Officials in the NBA have estimated that 200 million Chinese kids are regularly playing basketball, and the association organizes annual events in cities around China to promote the game, and the league. In recent years, players such as LeBron James have travelled to universities in China to meet young basketball fans and to play in a number of exhibition games. These visits are always enthusiastically received by the locals, and they are evidence of the NBA’s policy of looking towards China for emerging talent. While the wait for the next Yao Ming might take some time, the hunt for the next Jeremy Lin may not.