20080308-basketball1 mclc88.jpg
Scene from the 1960s film
Basketball Player No. 5
The Chinese love basketball. An estimated 300 million people play it, according to the N.B.A. more than soccer and roughly the same as the population of the United States, and an another estimated 300 million have access to N.B.A. games, which are televised almost everyday. Some Chinese who have money spend it on basketball shoe collections. Data from the mid-2000s suggests that basketball and soccer were roughly tied as China’s most popular sport with table tennis in third.

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “Hundreds of millions of Chinese play basketball and watch it on TV. China's professional league, the Chinese Basketball Association, has 17 teams. The country's national basketball squad, the best in Asia, delights Chinese fans with its aggressive play - and its rowdy fights with opponents, including an “on-court brawls during "friendly matches" with Brazil and the Georgetown Hoyas."

Basketball courts can found in villages and urban neighbors. For many Chinese their main form of exercise is a pick up game of basketball. One of the first things one sees when entering the main courtyard of the Forbidden City is basketball courts: one with a grass surface and another, with normal playground concrete. They are mainly used by guards and other employees to play informal games.

Basketball is the most popular school sport and the most popular sport among Chinese youth. It has caught in part because it is simple to play and requires little equipment. Most schools have nets and backboards and new arenas are being built all the time. There are even basketball courts in the Forbidden City.

With exposure to the NBA, more and more kids play with NBA-style cockiness and wear Adidas, Nike and Reebok — often counterfeit’shoes and clothes. An NCAA-like organization has had been set up on the university level that sponsors an NCAA-like tournament with a Final Four.

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article on Chinese Basketball Wikipedia ; ; Yao Ming Foundation

History of Basketball in China

Basketball was brought to China in the 1890s by YMCA missionaries who participated in some of the first peach basket games in Springfield, where the sport was invented. Basketball caught on quickly in the Shanghai area, where it was linked with some revolutionary activities. In the 1920s the game was very popular among urban students.

In 1935, basketball was declared a national pass time. In 1936, the Chinese fielded an Olympic team in 1936. It remained popular through the Mao era, when it was played under the slogan “friendship first, competition second” and players apologized after making fouls. Basketball was one of the few forms of Western entertainment that was not condemned in the Cultural Revolution. Members of the People’s Liberation Army have been encouraged to play basketball for exercise.

Young Basketball Talent in China

A great deal of money is poured into Chinese basketball at the youth level.

Talent is scouted early. Government scouts roam the country, looking for tall kids that have tall parents. One trainer told Sports Illustrated, “We X-ray their hands, when they’re quite little and from the length of the bones we can predict how tall they will grow to be.” Children that are selected are placed in after school programs. If they show promise they are placed in full-time, live-in sports academies.

One 6-foot-1, 14-year-old boy told the Los Angeles Times, “I was picked out of a line up in the second grade. I didn’t even know what basketball was.” Like other promsing kids he is required to work out on his days off and vacations. “Even during our day off, we have to jump rope at home and get our parents’ signature to prove it.”

It is not unusual for men’s and women’s basketball teams to act as matchmakers for tall or talented players, with the tacit understanding that their offspring will be promising players.

It is common for players to fake their age with false identification cards so they can play in age-group competitions. There have been reports of players faking their ages by as much as four years.

Chinese National Basketball Team


The Chinese national team is regarded as the best basketball team in Asia. They routinely trounce their closest rivals, Japan and South Korea but routinely get trounced by the United States and the best teams in Europe. Brook Larmer wrote in the Washington Post: “Even if hoops may be China’s most popular sport, Chinese teams have fallen short at international competitions. Until 7-foot-6 Yao Ming went to the Houston Rockets in 2002, few Chinese thought they could compete in the NBA “ largely because of a perceived sense of physical inferiority. This is is one reason Chinese fans took such pride in Yao: He showed that a Chinese man could stand up to (and loom over) some of the world’s biggest, toughest athletes. [Source: Brook Larmer, Washington Post, August 19, 2011]

The Chinese have produced some good centers, but their guards are usually of poor quality. They have a reputation for choking and blowing games because of their poor ball-handling skills. The players often look as if they are playing out of duty rather than for fun, which is often the case.

National team members endure grueling twice-a-day, six-day-a-week practices. These practice often involve hours of the same ball handling drills performed by grade schoolers. If the team loses the coaches are blamed and if they are blamed they let the players know it. This inhibits creativity and fighting spirit.

In international competitions, Chinese women usually do better than Chinese men. One of the most dominant player in women's basketball in the 1990s was Zheng Haixia, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound player discovered when she was a 280-pound teenager. At least a half a foot taller than the tallest woman on the American team, she was an awesome rebounder who once scored more than 60 points in single game.

The national team was coached by Lithuanian head coach Jonas Kazlauskas and assistant coach Donnie Nelson, formally with the Golden State Warriors.

Many think China will be one of the top four teams in the world in about ten years. Team USA coach in 2008 Mike Kryzewski said, “They’re a good team and they’ll continue to get better. They have too many resources and the passion to become better. They’ll make a commitment to become better because they live for the game.”

The Chinese national basketball team qualified for the 2012 Olympics in London in September 2011 after it struggled to beat Jordan 70-69 in a game in Beijing.

Chinese National Basketball Team in the Olympics

The Chinese team was the only Asian team to qualify for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. It didn't win a medal (it placed 10th in 2000 and 8th in 1996). In 2002, the team finished 12th in the World Championship, losing to Angola, and suffered an embarrassing loss to South Korea in the finals of the Asian Games, taking a silver medal after wining five straight gold medals.

The Chinese team placed 8th in the Olympics in 1996 and 2004. In 1996 the team got clobbered by the United States 133-70.

The Chinese national team made it to the quarterfinals in the 2004 Olympics in Athens under former NBA coach Del Harris and placed eighth overall. The highlight was a one point victory over defending world champions Serbia-Montenegro.

Chinese star player Yao Ming has said that Chinese players need to get stronger and smarter if they want to take a medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Harris said that for the team to improve before 2008 China’s top players need to play in the European leagues to improve their skills — an idea that didn’t go down so well with China’s basketball league, which wants to keep good players at home.

At the world championships in Japan in August 2006, the Chinese national team was ranked 10th. It was embarrassed by the U.S. team but managed to advance to the final round with a buzzer-beating shot against Slovenia.

Basketball at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

versus Angola in 2008
Basketball games were played at Wukesong Indoor Stadium, some distance away from other venues. They featured loud music, luxury boxes and sexy dancers put together with the help of 35 people from NBA USA. During breaks two strange, plastic Olympics mascots came on to the court and attempted to dunk the ball with help of a mini-trampoline and otherwise entertain the crowds by dancing, jumping and gyrating to the theme song from “Beverly Hills Cop”.

Describing the action Dan Steinberg wrote in the Washington Post, “Huanhuan the Olympic Flame took a sickly jump off the trampoline and got stuffed by the rim. Yingying the Tibetan antelope evidently got spooked and fared even worse, toppling over sideways after his missed dunk...By now the fans had stopped clapping and were more staring...Yingying went down the lane and lobbed an alley-oop to the charging Huanhuan, who failed even to catch the ball and collapsed on the ground...They left the court in disgrace.”

Chinese Basketball Team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Yao Ming and Yo Jianlain
At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the national team including two current NBA players — Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian — and one former NBA player — Wang Zhizhi — and one future NBA player’sun Yue. The team was coached by Jonas Kazlaukas, a Lithuanian former head coach of the Lithuanian national team.

The Chinese men ended up in 8th place again after being beaten convincingly by Lithuania in the quarterfinals 94-68 behind 13 three-pointers and pushing and shoving Yao to keep him from getting inside. Yao was double and triple teamed much of the game and left the game with 4:17 left, frustrated and tired with 19 points, seven rebounds after playing a tournament high 33 minutes,

On his Olympic experience Yao said afterwards, “I’m glad, but at the same time, I feel very regrettable for the results. I wished that courage would carry us to the next round, to make a record in the history of Chinese basketball, but I failed.”

China was in the “group of death” with the United States, Spain and Greece and showed grit just making it the quarterfinals. Yao socroed 30 and 25 points respectively in wins against Angola and Germany but only played seven second half minutes in the loss to Greece.

China nearly beat Spain, the defending Olympic champions. The game went into overtime with Spain prevailing 85-75. Yao Ming fouled out after scoring only 11 points. He was 4 for 12 from the field and had four turnovers.

The women’s basketball team also didn’t win a medal in Beijing but got a little bit closer to one. It lost to Russia in the bronze medal match. It was crushed by the U.S. team 108-63. The Americans led right from the start and 33-11 at the end of the first quarter and 61-27 at the halftime. The Chinese team was coached by Australian Tom Maher.

China Versus U.S. in Basketball at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

verus Spain
In their first game, China lost to the United States 101-70. China looked respectable for about the first 20 minutes, and then got blown out, behind double digit scoring effort by American NBA stars Dwayne Wade, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard.

The China-U.S. basketball game was billed as one of the marque events of the Olympics and one of the most important sporting event’s in China’s history. Among those in attendance were U.S. President George Bush, his wife Laura and father, former U.S. President George Bush, and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. By one estimate 1 billion Chinese watched the game on television in addition to the 18,000 people who watched the game live at Wukesong Arena.

Yao started China’s scoring with a rare three-point shot. After Sun hit a three-pointer and scored on a fast break China was ahead 11-7. At six minutes in the second quarter the score was 29 to 29. After that the U.S. went on 20-7 run and led 49-37 at half time. The Bushes left early.

Yao Ming had 13 points and 10 rebounds but looked winded and tired, shooting only 3 for 10 from the field. After the game, he said, “This game was a treasure, and it will be with me for the rest of my life...This is a personal Olympics for me...Everyone is proud. It felt great, all the flags and people cheering. It was a great game, great atmosphere.” Fans seemed most impressed with the steady stream of slam dunks by Bryant, Wade and James.

On the game, former Chinese national team member Ma Jia told Chinese television, “This was bigger than a game. This can help the future of China. It’s not a matter of whether China wins or losses, because people love the game. This game should be the game of the 2008 Olympics for China. I don’t care. I like other sports, but nothing is like this.” Wade, the 2006 NBA Finals MVP said “It can’t get no bigger than this. That was unbelievable. I haven’t been this anxious to play a basketball game since I was like a kid. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even rest today. I was up the whole day, just thinking about the game.”

The 2008 game was the fifth time that China and the United States met in Olympic competition. In their first meetings in 1984 and 88, when the U.S. team was comprise of first-rate university players, the U.S. won each time by 49 points. The U.S. team won by 63 points and 47 points reactively in 1996 and 2000.

When cheering for the home team, fans chanted something that sounded like “add gas” — which means “Go China.” There was also a lot of cheering for the American players. During the introduction Kobe Bryant got a bigger ovation than Yao Ming. In the game and during the warm ups fans cheered wildly every time a slam dunk was made.

Chinese National Basketball Association

The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) is main organizing body for basketball in China and the name of its professional league, which it runs. Among the 12 teams in the CBA League are the Beijing Ducks, Guangzhou Southern Tigers, Hong Kong Flying Dragons, Hubei Cranes and the Shanghai Sharks. The later is jointly owned by the Shanghai government and a state-owned television station. Other sponsors include the People’s Liberation Army. The are plans to transfer the 12 teams to private ownership by 2015.

With the exception of foreigners and big stars, CBA players generally live in dormitories at the sports centers where they practice. They often practice in unheated and un air-conditioned gymnasiums. In the winter they often bundle up in parkas and mittens. The arenas, where the teams play their games, also lack heating.

The practices are tough. When Yao Ming first turned professional at 13, his coach put the Sharks through four practices a day: The first at 6:30am, the last ending at 8:30pm.

Foreign Players in the Chinese National Basketball Association

According to CBA rules each team is allowed no more than two foreign players on the court at one time and they can play no more than five quarters collectively each game. A few have NBA experience. Many have played at American universities with good teams and have some experience playing in Europe, Argentina, Turkey or Israel or some other place.

Americans who have played in the CBA include Mike McGee, a former Los Angeles Laker, Tyrone Dolemna and Maurice Barnett, both former Harlem Globetrotters, and Michael Hudson, once with Magic Johnson's All-Stars. Mediocre basketball players in the United States have become big stars in China. Former NBA All-Star Steve Francis played with the Beijing Ducks. At one point there were reports he had left the team while teams said the reports were untrue. See NBA in China

American players and coaches communicate with hand signals and interpreters. One Chinese interpreter for an American coach told the Washington Post: "I don't translate it. I use some nicer words...During the game, he uses more bad words than good words."

The Chinese league would "lose tremendous fan support if it dropped American imports," Bruce O'Neil, president of United States Basketball Academy, told the Washington Post. The USBA is an Oregon-based outfit that has helped send Americans to China and also trained Chinese coaches and young players. For all China's rising nationalism, he said, "they still love America."

Chinese teams are now much more popular and richer than when the CBA started out in 1994, but fans still want to watch American players. Not everyone does, for sure, but even the most jingoistic Chinese measure themselves against the United States. Sometimes Chinese newspapers don't mention China's own basketball league, the CBA, but report at length on the NBA.

Wary of being swamped by talent from the NBA and other foreign leagues, China imposed a salary cap of $20,000 a month and limited each team to two foreigners. But this meant it attracted mostly washed-up or third-rate overseas players. The cap was later raised to $60,000 and has now fallen by the wayside, O'Neil said.

Foreigners, especially former NBA players, are "definitely beneficial to our league" because they "draw fans and attract sponsorship," Bai Xilin, a senior official of Chinese basketball's governing body, said at a news conference in December, the start of the new season.

Chinese National Basketball Association Games

Describing the atmosphere at a CBA game in Beijing, Keith Richburg of the Washington Post wrote: "Hardcore rap music blared from loudspeakers, while gong players in the corner banged on tiny cymbals, commonly used for Peking Opera, to produce an ear-numbing mergers of cultures East and West...Cheerleaders were dressed to look like rolls of Mentos mints...Miller girls in red miniskirts waited to supervise a half-time free-throw contest, and fans shivered in the barely heated university gym."

Fans often have thundersticks, which are manufactured in China. They often cheer for the opposing team albeit less enthusiastically than for the home team. In some places in Sichuan when a player shoots an air ball, the fans shout "”yangwei”", which means “impotent” in the local dialect. To prevent such an occurrence from happening to the home team players, fans shout “”xiongqi”,” which means “erection.” [Source: The New Yorker]

Brave Dragons: Book about an American Basketball Coach in China

In a book review in the Washington Post, Brook Larmer wrote: “Brave Dragons,” Jim Yardley’s rollicking book about basketball in China, is tale is set in motion by an unusual experiment. Boss Wang, the tempestuous steel baron who owns the Brave Dragons, has decided to buy an American coach from the holy land of hoops, the NBA. The experiment, which Yardley turns into a lively and often hilarious metaphor for the collision of Chinese and American cultures, seems almost doomed from the start. [Source: Brook Larmer, Washington Post February 17, 2012]

The new coach is an amiable NBA veteran, Bob Weiss. He’s never set foot in China before. But he suddenly finds himself in Taiyuan, a coal-choked provincial capital in what Yardley calls “the boiler room of China.” The first inkling that the season will be fraught with surprises: Weiss’s hotel, though seemingly topped by a Howard Johnson sign, turns out to be a run-down replica that, on closer inspection, is called “Howell & Johnson.”

The team itself, a crew of quirky Chinese players with a rotating cast of NBA washouts and wannabes, strives to be the real thing: a winning club guided to the playoffs by its new American guru. But as Weiss soon discovers, all of basketball’s familiar trappings in China “ the NBA-style uniforms, the “Spicy Spicy” dance squad, players with names like Kobe and Joy “ only serve to mask a disorienting amalgam of regimented state control and wild frontier capitalism. As Yardley, the son of Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, puts it: “The court was the same, the ball was the same, the rules of the game were the same, but everything else was different.”

The epitome of this strangeness “ and the book’s most compelling character “ is Boss Wang. A man with a volcanic temper and a soft spot for Michael Jordan, the 65-year-old team owner is part of the first modern Chinese generation to make a fortune and spend it on a dream “ this one inspired by the West. But Wang is still old-school, unleashing tirades at his players, firing 15 or 16 coaches in six years (who’s counting, even edging onto the bench during games with a young mistress by his side. Hiring Weiss was Wang’s idea. Yet even before the season begins, the boss does an about-face, initially sidelining Weiss in favor of a Chinese assistant whose idea of a perfect practice is to run pointless drills until the players collapse.

Thrust into this absurd situation, Weiss plays the role of straight man, absorbing every mishap with bemused affability. He is the reader’s touchstone. But the book’s humor and momentum come from the eccentric characters swirling around him. Yardley keenly depicts the foreign ringers Boss Wang has recruited (each team except the army squad is allowed two), whether it’s the 6-foot-10 Nigerian nomad who has played in a dozen countries or the troubled former NBA star Bonzi Wells, whose bizarre mid-season cameo throws off the team’s growing chemistry.

“The foreigners overshadow the Chinese players on court “ and in this book,” Yardley writes. “Weiss remedies this by digging deeply into the lives of the strivers and dreamers on the Brave Dragons’ staff, from the interpreter caught in the cultural crossfire to the DJ who revs up Taiyuan’s notoriously raucous crowds. By the end, however, the set seems crowded with bit players, all of whom get to offer their life stories.

As the season rolls on, Yardley uses the team’s road trips to explore bigger pieces of the puzzle. In Tianjin, he visits the original YMCA building where American missionaries introduced the game of basketball to China in 1895. Shanghai gives him a chance to understand why the country’s most modern city “ and the home of Yao Ming “ fields such a lousy basketball team. (It has to do with the meddling of the city’s Communist Party sports bureau.) Back home in Taiyuan, Yardley takes on the dark side of the game: the “black whistles” “ or corrupt referees “ who can twist the outcome of a match, as they did during the Georgetown University game-turned-brawl in Beijing last summer.

Book: “Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing” by Jim Yardley (Knopf/Random House, 2011).

Why Can’t China Produce a Jeremy Lin

It seems fitting that “Brave Dragons...should come out just as the world gets swept up in “Linsanity,” the electrifying rise of Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks’ 23-year-old Taiwanese American point guard. No, Lin wasn’t born in China (try California). He didn’t hone his skills in the rigid Chinese sports system (think Ivy League). Nor did he ever play for the Shanxi Brave Dragons, the team of misfits and underdogs that Yardley follows for a season in the Chinese Basketball Association. [Source: Brook Larmer, Washington Post, February 17, 2012]

Yet Lin’s sudden emergence illuminates one of the deeper themes that make Yardley’s tale resonate far beyond sports. For all the focus on Lin’s ethnicity “ the humble Asian boy with a Harvard degree and a dose of filial and religious piety “ his inventive, take-charge style on the court is unabashedly American. This hasn’t stopped millions of Chinese fans from embracing Lin Shuhao, as he is known in Mandarin, as the heir to Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6center who retired from the National Basketball Association last year.

But it raises the same uncomfortable question that Yardley’s main character... can’t shake: Why is it that a nation of 1.4 billion people and several hundred million basketball fanatics has never produced a single creative, world-class point guard? In other words: Why are there no Jeremy Lins coming out of China? The answers lie in the murky labyrinth of China’s elite sports system, which Yardley “ a former New York Times bureau chief in Beijing “ explores during his season with what was once the worst professional team in China. In less capable hands, this journey might have resulted in a simplistic sports yarn “ ”Bad News Bears” with Chinese characteristics. But drawing on his six years of experience in China, Yardley manages to capture, in touchingly human detail, the essence of a nation in transition. Chinese basketball, he suggests, is much like the country as a whole: caught halfway between an enduring socialist system and an amped-up commercial frenzy, anxious to absorb ideas from the West but deeply ambivalent about their influence.

“molten-iron” training, so deeply rooted in the Chinese sports system, provides one clue in the case of the missing point guards. China’s athletic army, much like its mass of factory workers, has been extremely productive, going from five Olympic gold medals in 1988 to 51 in 2008. Yet the rigid training methods, Yardley points out, suppress the very characteristics needed to produce an NBA-quality point guard: creativity, freedom, passion and leadership. One other clue comes when the Brave Dragons’ mediocre point guard confesses to Yardley that he won his position by default when his body didn’t grow as tall as predicted. In a system where players are still recruited solely on the basis of projected height “ preferably 6-7 or taller “ Jeremy Lin never would have played basketball in the first place.

Basketball Violence in China

In August 2005, a nasty brawl involving Chinese fans and players from China and Puerto Rico ended a game prematurely in Beijing. The brawl broke out at the end of the game — which China was leading by a large margin — when two Chinese players rushed off the bench to fight Puerto Rican players who had inflicted a hard foul on a Chinese player.

A Chinese newspaper reported: “Fists, plastic cups, water bottles and even a fan’s shoe went flying during the fracas.” The Puerto team was forced to flee to their locker room. One player held up a plastic chair to protect his head. It was seen as particularly bad form with the Beijing Olympics only three years away. The state media referred to the escapade as a “night of shame.”

It was not an isolated case. In July 2001, just 10 days after Beijing was awarded the right to host the Olympics, a bench-clearing brawl occurred in Shanghai after the final buzzer in a game between China and Lebanon. Fans threw water bottles and other objects at Lebanese players, several of whom were bloodied before the fight was broken up by police.

Liu Wei, captain of the national team, was suspended for 10 games and fined $7,273 for leading an attack on a foreign player — Nigerian forward Gabe Muoneke of the Yunnan Bulls — as he was exiting a stadium with his wife and three children. Liu and several teammates from the Shanghai Sharks ambushed Muoneke in the player’s area, cornered him and attacked him for more than a minute, before they were pulled away by security staff.

In October 2010 the Chinese men’s basketball team was suspended from training for a month following an on-court slugfeast with Brazilian players in a warm-up for the Asian games. In a game played in Xuchang, Henan Province, a fight broke out just 66 second after the tip off that resulted in punches and kicks being delivered. As the Brazilian players were leaving the court and going to the locker room the Brazilians were attacked by Chinese players and violence started again. The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) issued an apology to the Brazilian players. Several Brazilian players were hurt. After that, Chinese players had to take sportsmanship classes and, as one sports official put it, to “deeply reflect” on their actions. A few players and coaches were suspended.

Basketball Brawl Between the Georgetown Hoyas and Bayi Rockets Brawl in China

In August 2011, a highly-publicized fight broke occurred during an exhibition basketball in Beijing featuring the Georgetown Hoyas. AP reported: “A wild brawl broke out between Georgetown and a Chinese men’s basketball team putting an immediate end to a supposed goodwill game that coincided with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the country. The benches cleared and fights erupted all over the court with about 9 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The rest of the exhibition between Georgetown and the Bayi Rockets was called off. Biden did not attend the game. The day before he watched the Hoyas beat the Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons 98-81. [Source: Jonathon M. Seidl, AP, August 18, 2011]

The Washington Post reported Georgetown and Bayi players tackled and threw punches at each another. Chairs and water bottles were tossed as the Hoyas headed to the locker room with the score 64-all in a testy, foul-plagued matchup. “Tonight, two great teams played a very competitive game that unfortunately ended after heated exchanges with both teams,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said in a statement. “We sincerely regret that this situation occurred.”

The melee was the latest instance of on-court fighting by China, whose players have been fined tens of thousands of dollars by the world and Asian federations for scrapping with opponents.

Georgetown is in China on a 10-day trip which has been cited by the U.S. State Department as an example of sports diplomacy that strengthens ties between the two countries. The Hoyas were briefed by the State Department ahead of their departure on what to expect during its trip to Beijing and Shanghai, according to news releases on the university’s website.

“We remain grateful for the opportunity our student-athletes are having to engage in a sport they love here in China, while strengthening their understanding of a nation we respect and admire at Georgetown University,” Thompson III said.

Inside Story the Georgetown Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets Brawl

On the brawl, Victor H. Mair University of Pennsylvania wrote: “The infamous melee between the Georgetown Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets has been mostly scrubbed from Chinese media. It is unfortunate that this donnybrook happened while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting China, and that is one of the reasons often given as an excuse for the general effacing of this sorry event from Chinese news sources — so as not to embarrass the Vice President of the United States of America. Another common explanation is that this was supposed to be a goodwill game, and it is a great loss of face for China that it turned out to be something altogether different — a full-court free-for-all in which the home fans participated by booing, throwing bottles (some of them full of water), and showering the Hoyas with other objects as they left the court. [Source: Victor H. Mair, University of Pennsylvania, August 22, 2011]

To begin to grasp the real dynamics of what happened on Thursday, we need to understand that the Bayi Rockets are an army team. Indeed, all of its players are members of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and their very name (8-1) signifies the date August 1[/1927]) of the founding of the PLA on August 1, 1927, which is still celebrated annually as PLA Day. The Bayi Rockets have also perennially been one of the best professional basketball teams in China. Because the Hoyas would have demolished any Chinese college basketball team that could have been put against them, they were made to play one of the premier professional basketball teams in China. One can imagine the extreme frustration felt by the Chinese — players and fans alike — when the college boy Hoyas kept up with the professional Rockets. The tension grew all the greater in light of the fact that the Chinese referees clearly were doing some home-cooking in the foul department, calling 28 fouls against Georgetown and only 11 against Bayi. Nor did it help matters that the Rockets were all soldiers trained to fight.”

Thus it was virtually inevitable that a skirmish would break out. Some commentators even declared that — instead of being a show of goodwill, the now fabled Georgetown-Bayi "Basketball Brawl Symbolized Growing U.S.-China Tensions" as Max Boot wrote in Commentary (August 21, 2011). At the very least, as Josh Chin declared in the online Wall Street Journal (August 19, 2011), "A Basketball 'Friendly' Fouls U.S.-China Mood ."

It is not uncommon for basketball games in China to erupt into fisticuffs. It seems that Chinese players do not quite understand that, unlike rugby or football, basketball is not supposed to be a brutal contact sport, and it certainly is not meant to be a boxing or wrestling match. In one notorious instance that took place last October, a massive melee broke out early on between a visiting Brazilian team and a Chinese team during another supposedly "friendly" match. If you type brazil china basketball fight (no quotation marks) into Google, you can find plenty of accounts, photographs, and videos of the vicious combat that took place.” There are a number of media reports (e.g., Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) about wild free-for-alls between Chinese teams and American teams playing in China, together with Chinese players and fans throwing things (including chairs) at the Americans, with little to no intervention by Chinese police and security personnel.

The USA Today for Friday, August 19, 2011, p. 7C has this paragraph: "The melee [between the Georgetown Hoyas and Bayi Rockets] was the latest instance of on-court fighting by China, whose players have been fined tens of thousands of dollars by the world and Asian federations for scrapping with opponents."

Georgetown Coach John Thompson III pulled his players off the court with 9 minutes 32 seconds left to go. It is beyond a curious coincidence that the score was tied at 64-64 when the game was called off. The symbolic significance of 64-64 has not been lost on some observers. There are many others who make the same point. What such interpreters see in the 64-64 tie between the Georgetown Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets is the PLA suppressing students on June 4, 1989. Naturally, no one is suggesting that either the Hoyas or the Rockets wished for the game to end at precisely 64-64 (certainly, the Rockets would not have wanted that to happen!). Yet the fact remains that this was the score at the conclusion of the game, and it shall remain so forever. Hence the desperate need for the custodians of the media to wipe it from the consciousness of Chinese citizens. The intense humiliation surrounding such an unseemly occurrence on Chinese soil only adds to the desire on the part of the Chinese authorities for everybody in the PRC and abroad to forget that it ever happened.

Reasons Behind the Georgetown Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets Brawl

A self-confessed apologist for Chinese basketball, who cleverly calls his website "niubball" ("niub" [two syllables: niúbi-] is generally explained as meaning something like "awesome" or "fantastic," but actually is an extremely vulgar obscenity, admits that basketball as played in China is much more physical than anywhere else. In any event, nearly everyone, including many Chinese commentators on microblogs and other venues, recognizes that the Chinese players both instigated and escalated the fight. This is obvious from the the limited video footage that are available at many places on the web. In one scene, a Chinese player pushes Georgetown's Aaron Bowen through a partition, then pins him to the ground and pummels him. Taiwan's Next Media produced an animated version of the fight that emphasizes the pugilistic predilections of the Chinese players.

In response Andrew Field wrote: “Perhaps one of the underlying reasons for this fracas, other than the obvious fact that the Chinese team was composed of PLA soldiers, is that Chinese athletes and audiences here in the PRC haven't yet developed a more sophisticated sense of etiquette and sportsmanship. One might argue that sportsmanlike conduct in team sports competitions has evolved over the decades in the USA and other countries, though in some contests such as football (European and American) and rugby matches, one is still reminded of the bloodlusty gladiatorial cultures of the ancient Roman Empire as described by Saint Augustine.

Brook Larmer wrote in the Washington Post: No less than Yao Ming “criticized Chinese coaches for treating basketball as a non-contact sport. The only way to succeed internationally, he said, is to play a more physical game. Could the ultra-aggressive play the Hoyas faced last week be a sign of how Chinese basketball is trying to become more American?” [Source: Brook Larmer, Washington Post, August 19, 2011]

Image Sources: Ohio State University, CCTV, NBA, AFP, UCLA Asia Institute, Nike

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012

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