Houston Community News >> China's Next Generation Basketball Taking Shape

2/19/2007 BEIJING-- To understand China's basketball ambitions, look no further than the four Chinese characters that adorn 16 glass backboards in a sprawling sports complex near Tiananmen Square.

"Basketball's new generation surpassing the old," they read.

In the shadow of those boards, 18-year-old Li Boyang is the next generation — the one Yao Ming spawned. He speaks English, lugs a scuffed orange basketball and happily hands over 15 yuan (about US$2, €1.50) to play an hour of half-court at the Dongdan Sports Center.

"When Yao Ming made the NBA, it started to get us interested in basketball," said Li, dressed in shiny white sneakers and a baggy, oversized, flannel-like shirt. "For many of us, it was Yao."

American missionaries brought basketball to China in the 1890s, but the Houston Rockets' 2.29-meter (7-foot-6) center has converted the game into street cool. He's also generated a few urban myths among teenage boys, like this one: Playing basketball can make you taller.

"When I was 7, I wasn't really tall," Li said, drawing a hand across his waist to show how short he was. "Playing basketball is one reason I think I've grown. I really believe this."

Li stands about 1.83 meters (6 feet) — much shorter than Yao, but taller than the average Chinese.

Called "lanqiu" (pronounced lahn-chew) in Chinese, basketball in China represents America's most successful sporting export. The NFL has lost money trying to transplant its game abroad — mostly in Europe as NFL Europa. And Major League Baseball has dented few nontraditional markets looking for new revenue.

Both are trying to crack China. The NFL will play the exhibition China Bowl in Beijing in August — the New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks — and MLB eventually may stage a regular-season game in a stadium being built for the 2008 Olympics.

But the NBA already has a 50-member staff — its largest abroad — and a game with deep roots.

"It's the No. 1 market for us outside the United States," said Heidi Ueberroth, who directs the NBA's international business. "We've seen double-digit growth over the past several years — and as far out as we can project. I can assure you it is very profitable."

She said the NBA generates about 10 percent of its US$3 billion (€2.3 billion) revenue outside the United States, and China is the biggest overseas contributor.

The NBA boasts 20,000 stores in China that carry its merchandise. China's biggest broadcaster, state-run CCTV, airs four NBA games weekly, and 50 other stations across the country telecast games. Ueberroth visits the country three or four times a year, and is sure to return in October when two NBA teams play. The teams and venues have not been announced.

"Right now, we're taking a real look at the structure and how we build for the growth," Ueberroth added. "If we could take and replicate the structure we have in the United States and put it there (China), that would be what we need."

The NBA has landed local sponsors, including Lenovo, the Chinese computer maker that bought IBM's personal computer division, and Chinese sporting good company Li-Ning, founded by an earlier sports hero, Olympic and world champion gymnast Li Ning. Inner Mongolia dairy Mengniu came aboard last month.

Media research company AGB Nielsen says soccer is the country's most watched sport, though basketball is more widely played. Nielsen shows soccer with an average of two or three times more viewers than basketball in the three major markets: Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.

But the NBA's numbers have risen steadily since 2001, despite games being aired in the morning. The NBA claims 347 million TV viewers in China this season.

The Internet also has live Webcasts of NBA games.

The ratings could get another spike from China's latest star, 2.13-meter (7-foot) forward Yi Jianlian, who's expected to go in the first round of this year's NBA draft. He'll be the fourth Chinese to make the NBA, following Wang Zhizhi, Mengek Bateer and Yao.

And there'll be more from a country where 300 million — the entire population of the United States — play the game.

"Basketball is the only sport every school plays here," said Xia Song, a former agent and scout. "Lithuania or Serbia, they are not richer than China, but they have watched what the Americans are doing and developed. We have been isolated. But now we are learning quickly."

Yi, who plays for the Guangdong Tigers in the Chinese Basketball Association, is quick and athletic with a deadly perimeter shot. Many compare the 19-year-old — some dispute his age — to David Robinson or Pau Gasol. "He's no Yao Ming, but everything about him is first-round material," Xia said.

Danny Ainge, the Boston Celtics executive director of basketball operations, was in China this month to scout Yi — who averages 25 points and 12 rebounds a game.

"Yi slams in front of Boston manager Ainge," read the headline in the newspaper Titan Sports. Known for his athletic slams, Yi had five with Ainge watching.

Despite Yao's success, he's the only Chinese in the NBA among about 90 non-American players.

"It's very competitive, that's why," Ueberroth said.

Once a marginal league run under communist central planning, the CBA has improved with more foreign coaches and players. American Bruce O'Neil, who runs the United States Basketball Academy in Oregon has helped the revamp.

O'Neil organized a draft of non-Chinese players, with 30 going to the CBA this season. Mostly Americans, their salaries are capped at US$25,000 (€19,000) monthly with a low of about US$8,000 (€6,100). The academy also trains China's junior and youth teams.

"China is where Europe was 20-30 years ago, but it's only going to take China 10 years to catch up," O'Neil said. "After the 2008 Olympics you are going to see a lot of players going to the NBA."

There's perhaps another Yao on the horizon, O'Neil said, describing a 14-year-old at his academy who's already 2.16 (7-1).

"Yao is a national symbol. He's a brand," O'Neil said. "His influence is enormous. Since he's been in the league, people in China know more about the NBA than Americans."

American Jason Dixon, who plays alongside Yi at Guangdong, is completing his eighth year in the CBA. It doesn't rival Europe's top leagues, but it's close.

"When I first got here the league was terrible," said Dixon, a 33-year-old center.

"We called it an 'easy money' league. China was not a country you wanted on your resume. You could have taken five guys off the streets in the States and crushed the national team by 30. They had no basketball knowledge. Now you have to earn your money."

(Contributed by International Tribune)