Houston Community News >> China's Basketball Global Rise Takes US Route

3/9/2007 - With a smooth flick of the wrist, Zheng Zhun's spindly fingers send the basketball spinning toward the rim. The net cord stirs only for a moment before Zheng launches another long jumpshot, again extending his rail-thin arms.

"Watch how the ball leaves his hand," said Cameron Hill, a coach at the United States Basketball Academy (USBA) in central Oregon. "There aren't many seven-footers in the world with that type of shooting touch."

At seven feet one inch (2.16 metres) and 17 years old, Zheng is one of 25 boys -- some as young as 11 -- from China who have spent the last few months in the backwoods of Oregon at a training camp that could help to tip the global balance of basketball power.

Basketball will be an important showcase at the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, where China will highlight Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets' all-star center and one of the country's most famous athletes.

On a secluded encampment along the banks of the McKenzie River, Chinese players train daily with American coaches on defensive techniques and shooting drills with the dream of one day playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA) like Yao.

Off the court, the players retreat to cabin-style dormitories where they play video games, watch Chinese movies and nap in bunkbeds too short for their long frames.

The group includes three players over seven feet. Most of the teenage boys are at least six foot four inches, including the guards. Li Qi, the youngest player at 11, is six feet tall and can dunk a volleyball on a regulation hoop with ease. His hands are not big enough to hold a basketball.


This is the second group of promising young players sent by the junior clubs of Chinese Basketball Association teams to the U.S. Basketball Academy, a year-round training facility founded by former University of Hawaii coach Bruce O'Neil.

"In 10 years, China is going to be a power in basketball throughout the world," said O'Neil, who aims to expand the programme to 80 players next year. "There are several hundred seven-footers in China. They're everywhere."

China's push for basketball superpower status marks the next phase in the sport's globalisation, which started with victories by European and South American teams in recent years at international competitions once dominated by the United States.

The next wave of Chinese basketball heroes are already following Yao to the NBA. Yi Jianlian, an athletic seven-foot forward from Guangdong, is likely to be one of the first players selected in this year's NBA draft.

Zheng represents the challenges and the potential for the players in the programme. He is tall, athletic and skilled but he can be lazy and needs to add mass and strength to his bony 190-pound (86-kg) frame, according to the coaches.

"The players aren't afraid to work but they need constant motivation," said Hill, who along with another coach, Chris Briggs, delivers instructions to the players in simple phrases and animated hand gestures.


In a bungalow near the basketball gym, the coaches push the players through weight-lifting exercises and agility drills while hip-hop music blares over the speakers. The music is so loud that it disrupts an English class taking place in a smaller space adjacent to the weight room.

The instructor struggles to get the players to abandon conversations in Mandarin but the boys agree to take turns reading aloud an English book about Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

In order to ensure the players eat enough food and maintain a proper diet, the USBA hired a cook to prepare Chinese food for the players, who gobble up more than 30 pounds (13.6 kg) of rice a day.

"They can't eat American food every day," said chef Jack Chang, a native of Taiwan who calls the players his children. "They're all teenagers. Their plates look like small mountains of food."

Like many American teenagers, the players love trips to the shopping mall, where the group are greeted with dumbfounded stares and autograph requests. Players return with stacked boxes of sneakers and shopping bags full of athletic gear and electronics.

"I love to go shopping," said Ji Xiang, a six-foot-eight power forward from Shanghai who speaks English well and hopes to go to college in United States. "It's easy to get fed up. You only go to three places: the gym, the cafeteria and the weight room."

(Contributed by Chinadaily.com)