Basketball’s popularity in China shouldn’t be a stunner. According to NBA.com, Chinese people have been playing basketball since the 19th century, not long after James Naismith created the game. Missionaries who came here to evangelize brought basketball with them, and it was played at YMCAs across the nation. History has it that the first basketball game ever played in China was on December 5, 1895, at a YMCA set up by Dr. Willard Lyon. In 1910, the YMCA organized the first-ever national athletic competition in China – at least the first on record – and basketball was one of the events. Basketball was also present at the 1915 Far Eastern Championship games, held in Shanghai. China won the gold medal in basketball at the Far Eastern Games in 1921, and 15 years later, China fielded a basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
B-ball always played second fiddle to table tennis, but its popularity continued to rise. China’s first professional basketball league – the Chinese Basketball Association – was founded in 1956. It disappeared in 1974 – for reasons I hope to uncover – but was reborn in 1995 and is still going strong. Basketball became all the more popular when 7-foot-6 China native Yao Ming was selected as the No. 1 pick of the 2002 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets (whose logo, incidentally, morphed into a pseudo-Chinese character shortly thereafter). Today, Yao is arguably the most recognizable person in the country. Another Chinese basketball player, Yi Jianlian, was drafted No. 6 overall in the NBA Draft in 2007, further solidifying both China’s presence in the NBA, and the NBA’s presence in China. According to basketball.org, “NBA” is the most searched-for item on China’s main search engine, Baidu, and according to NBA.com, “NBA.com/China has become the most popular sports Web site in China.”
So, the stats and the history are there. But more than that, there are courts everywhere. To borrow a phrase from Tealander, you can hear a ball “whack-whacking” the pavement all over China. When on vacation in Lijiang, which is buried in the southwest of China, I rented a bike and headed toward a giant peak looming over the city called Snow Mountain (clever name, huh?). Snow Mountain dominates the horizon to the west, and I used it as my compass. After a while, I was weaving through small villages in the distant outskirts of Lijiang, divorced from the noise and bustle and dense population of the city. In one of these villages, there was a small common area facing the road; it was emitting that unmistakable whack-whack. As I approached, I noticed that a basketball hoop loomed over the square, not unlike Snow Mountain looms over Lijiang. I instinctively slowed to a crawl so I could gaze in at the people playing, at which point in noticed that the five guys on the court had to be older than 70.
Another bizarre basketball moment came in the jungly mountains of south-central China. My brother and I went on a seven-hour hike that started at the foot of Emei Shan, one of China’s four holy mountains. That particular mountain is buried amid a range of other ones, and you navigated your way via an endless maze of stairs. Along the path we saw Buddhist monks making the pilgrimage through the forests, as well as more than a few monkeys in the trees overhead. (One of the little suckers even swooped in and stole my water bottle. What a punk.) After the all-day hike my brother and I decided to shack up at a Buddhist monastery deep in the jungle. One of the first things I noticed at the monastery – along with the pungent smell of incense – was a basketball court resting about 50 feet from the entrance. My brother and I were exhausted, but the idea of playing hoops on this court invigorated us. We dropped off our bags, asked for a ball and headed over to the court to shoot around. There we were, buried in a lush jungle, surrounded by every conceivable shade of green, trees towering all around, and we were playing basketball.
There is a lot that I don’t understand about China – why some people drive at night without their lights on, why they don’t appreciate line etiquette, why a cab driver once literally stopped me from putting on my seatbelt. But this much I know: The Chinese love basketball. They play it the way I play it, with seemingly unbridled (and possibly irrational) affection. Why, though? Why is it such a big deal? That’s what I want to know, and that’s what I intend to find out this spring and summer.
One potential problem is language. Conspicuously absent from my aforementioned list of day-off-filling hobbies was learning Chinese; that’s not an oversight. Basically, once I figured out some good foods I got lax. But luckily my girlfriend, who is from England, is studying vivaciously in hopes of fostering a career where she uses Chinese. Chinese, after all, is a burgeoning language for international business and political communication (which makes learning it about 2,784 times more practical than keeping a blog about playground basketball in China in hopes of kick-starting a floundering journalism career). Luckily, she says that helping me talk with Chinese people who hang out at basketball courts could be a fruitful medium through which she can practice; I’m not about to argue with that sentiment. Sure, there will be communication issues even with her help. But I’ll still be able to play and watch, and besides, some communications snafus could make for some good blog fodder.
So that’s what this blog is about. It’s a basketball nut/freelance journalist from Kansas spending months on end on the basketball courts of Jinan, China. I will play with Chinese basketball players who seem to have much of the same passion about the game that millions of Americans, myself included, have as well. I will use certain areas of expertise – namely basketball, writing and journalism – as tools to better understand what I feel is an underappreciated (or at least under-understood) phenomenon of basketball in China.
Just yesterday, while traipsing down an alley lined with food vendors – Eat Street, as we call it; Disease Street, as my parents might call it – I ordered a bowl of noodles that ended up being bigger than my head. The operation was pretty fun to watch: an old woman, presumably the wife, fields orders and takes money. To her right an old man, presumably hubby, controls a piping-hot wok. He cooks at warp speed, sending mounds of bean curd and eggs and vegetables skyward with a subtle, effortless flip of his wrist, calmly cradling the bounty of food as it descends wokward. The fire below the wok angrily flares up every so often, but he is impervious – or at least unfazed.
While momentarily not transfixed by the chef, I peered behind this makeshift kitchen. And there, looming over the heads of the mom-and-pop duo, was a huge poster of LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Tracy McGrady, all mid-flight on their way to monstrous dunks. For LeBron, it’s an infamously violent slam on Tim Duncan a few years back; for MJ, it’s the free-throw-line dunk from the 80s, with his gold chain and tongue flopping about; and for McGrady, it’s a tomahawk during an All-Star game, his head parallel with the rim, the ball down by his waist moments before it is smashed through the hoop.
Right in front of me is quintessential China: old man and old woman furiously cooking up some sorts of veggie-noodle combo. And right behind them is a basketball poster. People think of woks and little old ladies when they think of China, but they don’t always think of basketball. After you read this, maybe you will.