Where is the Future of Chinese Basketball

Yao Ming and Zhou Qi (source: Osports)

After losing to Nigeria 86-73 in the last FIBA World Cup game, China lost the lone Asian Olympic qualifying spot available in the World Cup. Yao Ming, the most successful Chinese basketball legend and current Chinese Basketball Association chairman, frowned and cried. Wang Shipeng, another Chinese basketball legend who once contributed a buzzer beater in the 2006 World Championship and is now working as a TV commentator, could not control his tears on camera either.

This is a result that few people could imagine last week until the final seven seconds of the game between China and Poland. In those seven seconds, Chinese basketball dropped from the heaven to the hell. Before Poland made a key steal when Zhou Qi tried to pass the ball to a teammate, almost all Chinese supporters believed that China had a tight grip on the qualifying spot for Tokyo.

It might be unfair to say Zhou Qi had to take full responsibility for the setback, but his botched inbound play was definitely the last straw which broke the camel’s back. Although Zhou’s teammates posted their support of Zhou on Weibo consecutively with the words “Win together as a team, and lose together as a team”, the anger of Chinese fans was still raw. Zhou Qi’s miscue soon swept across Chinese social media. The team’s demise became the hottest topic right after the game and garnered more than 1 billion hits overnight on Weibo. Angry fans were also pouring comments onto Zhou’s Weibo to express their disappointment. The terrible form and low morale extended to the game against Venezuela. Facing a team that almost abandoned its trip to China due to financial shortcomings, China’s performance was pretty abysmal and they eventually lost the game 59:72.

This is not the first time that Chinese men’s basketball has slumped. In 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, China was knocked out in the group stage, but China had Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi and other talented players who soon emerged from that shadow with victories back in the 2006 World Championship and 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

This time, the reason fans are so despaired, is that they cannot even see the hope. Throughout the whole tournament, Yi Jianlian, the former NBA top pick and the current captain of Chinese national team, received the most compliments. He stayed active in both attacking and defending sides and saved the team from the brink of failure several times. However, he is 32 years old now and has reached the final stage of his career. It is still unclear who can assume his role to lead the team in the future. At least no one seemed to be capable in this year’s World Cup. Although Zhou Qi has received countless criticisms, no one could deny that he is almost the only center that Li Nan, the head coach of China, can depend on, even if he has not played in official games until he returned to his former CBA club, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers last month after being waived by the Rockets last December.

Chinese men’s basketball has been seen as a cover-up of the general weak performance of Chinese men’s team sports for a long time. Due to the success of Yao Ming in the NBA and the easier access to courts, the popularity of basketball has been increasing in China in the past twenty years. However, this does not mean Chinese basketball doesn’t have legitimate concerns about its talent pipeline. Compared to soccer, which has a higher requirement for team collaboration and strategy implementation due to its larger field and more players, the impact of an all-star player in a basketball game is stronger and more straightforward. In some ways, the outstanding performance of Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian conceals the fact that China currently has no more world-class. Ironically, the Chinese men’s basketball team was staying in the same hotel with Chinese men’s soccer team in Guangzhou after losing the game with Poland. People were joking that maybe those basketball players could ask the soccer team how it feels to be useless without embarrassment.

Failures in the World Cup also raised some controversies about Yao’s work as the chair of Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). The top comments in Weibo mentioned that China was able to enter the quarterfinals of Olympic Games when professionalism was less prevelant and athletes’ quality of training was worse. People were also criticizing Yao’s support towards the head coach of the National team, Li Nan. Li was the captain of Chinese national team in Yao’s team and once made great contributions for China’s outstanding performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Game. However, his coaching ability was not convincing enough for the fans since he only had one failed coaching experience in Shandong before being appointed as the head coach of the national team. Fans were lashing out at him for both his lineup selection and his inability to make savvy in-game adjustments. After the last game against Nigeria, the audience were shouting “Li Nan Out!”, but Yao still showed his support to his former teammate. When asked who should be responsible for China’s poor performance in the World Cup, the 39-year-old said “Me!” “It is me who disappointed the fans.”

However, most people were claiming that Chinese basketball is on a right track that benefits its long-term development. In February 2017, Yao Ming was unanimously elected as chairman of Chinese Basketball Association. In the past two years, he has focused on increasing the professionalism and commercialism of the CBA to construct a healthy system for the future of the Chinese Basketball League. The reform measures that have been carried out in Yao’s term include having more rounds of games to offer more opportunities to young players, redesigning the playoff qualification system to make games more attractive, and setting up a rating system for referees to decrease controversies regarding referees’ decisions. As Yao Ming said, “A well-developed league is the foundation of the national team.” Under his management, the CBA has reached a historical peak from both commercial and athletic perspectives.

Yao also aimed to expand the channel for Chinese athletes to play internationally. He revolutionarily divided the national team into two to allow more athletes to be able to play for the national team. Due to his close connection with NBA, the Chinese national team also received the invitation from the NBA Summer League, which is a great opportunity for athletes to receive attention from NBA teams. All those efforts paid off when China won gold medals in basketball in the Asian Games last year, eight years since the their last success. People were cheering that China finally selected an expert to lead a sports administrative institute and Yao is the right person who can lead the revival of Chinese basketball.

Failure in the World Cup is not the end of the day. China still has the chance to qualify for its 10th straight Olympics at a tournament next year. However, the competition will be even tougher since China has to advance past a higher-ranked European nation. As Yao Ming underscored to the team, the team cannot rely on anyone else but themselves to rediscover success.