Courting the stars of the future
Updated: 2014-10-16 07:27
By Xu Jingxi(China Daily)
NBA looks for the next Chinese hoop king
By Xu Jingxi
The NBA's relationship with China was cemented in 1989 when then-Commissioner David Stern showed up at China Central Television with a bag of video cassettes to convince the station's executives that the NBA was worth showing to hundreds of millions of basketball fans across China.
Michael "Air" Jordan won over Chinese fans with his magical performances, shown on the TV screen. But it was Yao Ming's success in the NBA that resulted in the league's popularity exploding in the country.
Having led the Shanghai Sharks to their first, and to date, only, CBA title, the then-22-year-old center was drafted by the Houston Rockets as No 1 overall in 2002 on his way to becoming a seven-time All-Star.
In 2004, the NBA brought its pre-season global games to China, with the first featuring the Sacramento Kings and, of course, the Houston Rockets with Yao.
The NBA Global Games China celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, with the 17th game being held in Shanghai on Oct 12, and the 18th in Beijing on Wednesday.
Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, who was with Yao at the first NBA China Games in Shanghai 10 years ago, said he's impressed at how knowledgeable Chinese fans have become about the NBA in the past decade.
"The arena was much quieter 10 years ago. You could hear the sneakers squeaking on the floor, because, I think, fans weren't sure when it was appropriate to applaud," Silver recalled.
"Today the fans are much more sophisticated in their knowledge of NBA basketball," he said. "What happened over the period that Yao Ming was playing in the NBA is that Chinese fans began to pay more attention to all the teams. They not only followed Yao Ming, but also Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Derek Rose, Cameron Anthony, and so many other great stars."
However, according to Yang Yi, senior basketball editor at Titan Sports Weekly, to take its development in China to the next level, the NBA needs to find another Chinese player able to hold his ground and prove his value in the league after Yao.
"Fifteen percent of Chinese basketball fans love American star players such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and LeBron James. But for a large number of NBA fans in China, they still won't feel so close to, and will pay limited attention to, the NBA if there is not a Chinese player," Yang said in a recent interview with Tencent.
"The NBA must be actively seeking the next Chinese player who can compete in the NBA."
As he walked to the courtside seats with his wife and young daughter, Yao Ming stole the show from the stars of the NBA's Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets at their pre-season game in Shanghai on Sunday.
Despite not making a speech or waving to the audience, the retired "Chinese Giant", who was awarded the nickname not only because of his height - 2.26 meters - but also his successful playing career, still received thunderous cheers and applause, a fitting indication of how much Chinese basketball fans love and miss him.
"Yao is the pride of China," said Zhang Jiayang, a member of the welcoming audience. "He was the first Chinese superstar in the NBA. I don't know when we will see the next Yao Ming.
"If only Yao Ming was on the team! That's what I was thinking when I watched the national men's basketball team suffer humiliating losses at the Asian Games," said the 26-year-old basketball fan from Shanghai. "It used to be exciting to watch the team play because Yao could always lead the team to win a game."
Yao is greatly missed, not only in the NBA but also in the Chinese national men's basketball team, which has recently floundered in a sea of losses, including finishing fifth at the recent Asiad in Incheon, South Korea, the team's worst result at the Asian Games in 40 years.
However, superstars such as Yao and Michael Jordan are "scarce resources that we may come by once in 100 years", said Zhang Qing, CEO of Key Solution Consulting Company, which specializes in sports consultancy.
"Instead of waiting a long time for a superstar to emerge and improve the national basketball team's performance, a better solution would be to improve on-campus basketball education and also the professional talent-training system to raise the overall level," he said.
"And once we do well in on-campus basketball education, maybe we will have a better chance to see the next Yao Ming stand out."
The Chinese Basketball Association estimates that more than 300 million people play basketball in China. That's roughly equivalent to the population of the United States, according to Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner.
However, it seems that China hasn't found a way to grow a strong group of players from the game's huge fan base and its reserves of talent.
Among the problems facing the Chinese basketball talent-training system are the facts that physical education is undervalued on campus, and that sports tournaments between schools are underdeveloped, according to Zhang Qing, who worked as a consultant for the CBA from 2005 to 2009.