Basketball in China Part II: The Evolution

Zhenyu LiContributor IIIJuly 25, 2012

China's basketball power is rising. (Photo courtesy of the CBA)
China's basketball power is rising. (Photo courtesy of the CBA)

Basketball is never out of place in modern China. As a matter of fact, the sport in the land of Confucius is almost as old as the sport itself.

After years of development, the Chinese version of the NBA was born. One of the players coming from this league was a Chinese giant by the name of Yao Ming.

With an estimated fan base of 450 million, China’s basketball market has shown huge potential to become the biggest in the world.

Basketball Today

Basketball is currently one of the most popular sports in China, and has the biggest number of people involved with the game.

An estimated 300 million Chinese citizens play basketball — roughly equivalent to the entire population of the United States, according to the Chinese Basketball Association.

It is the most popular sport among Chinese youth.

Since 1987, when the National Basketball Association (NBA) first gave broadcasting rights to China Central Television (CCTV) free of charge, it has cultivated an estimated fan base of 450 million. Megastars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett are household names in the country.

With exposure to the NBA, more and more kids play with NBA-style cockiness and wear Adidas, Nike and Reebok shoes and clothes.

Over the last 10 years, Beijing has slowly opened basketball to outside influences, in much the same way it has opened other strategic industries to foreign investment. The government has gradually allowed corporations like Nike, Li Ning and the NBA to play an increasingly greater role in developing the market and the basketball talent.

In January 2008, the NBA established the entity NBA China, an affiliate with local operations and management. Since then, NBA China has built its business aggressively through a broad media play, along with sponsorships, promotions, events and an arena-management venture.

A Historical Perspective

Long before the NBA arrived, missionaries and revolutionaries helped make the game ubiquitous here in China.

Introduced to China over a century ago by YMCA missionaries just a few years after the game's 1891 invention in Springfield, Massachusetts, basketball has seeped into the fabric of Chinese lives.

Some of the first groups that embraced basketball in China were college students and western-minded scholars.

In the 1920s, the game was very popular among urban students.

In 1935, basketball was declared a Chinese national pastime.

At that time, members of the Red Army was encouraged to play basketball for lifting spirits and exercise.

Until the NBA arrived in the early 1990s, basketball had come to feel so intrinsically Chinese, most people did not even associate it with America.

Chinese Version of NBA

Before 1995, basketball careers were fostered mainly with State support. But, although competitive leagues had been developing rapidly, state funding could not be sustained, hindering further growth. Consequently, the game was professionalized.

In 1995, a Chinese version of the NBA, namely the Chinese Basketball Association, CBA for short, came into play.

After years of cultivation and development, the league has significantly improved, with a number of high-caliber players springing up. Among those were Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi, Yi Jianlian, Mengke Bateer and Sun Yue, who have played in the NBA.

During the 2007 NBA All-Star Game, the player who received the most votes was neither LeBron James nor Kobe Bryant. It was Yao Ming. The first Chinese-born athlete to play successfully in the NBA.

Yao retired from basketball on July 20, 2011, leaving behind giant footprints on the NBA court.

The Chinese basketball authorities, previously fearing that players who go abroad will never return, now encourage players to get overseas experience, as China looks to raise its level of international competitiveness.

The CBA not only encourages local exports, but also welcomes foreign imports.

Being coordinated by both local sports committees and businesses, the clubs in the CBA are able to work with foreign investors, bring in foreign players and coaches, and freely trade players with other clubs.

In 1996, James Hodges became one of the first Americans to play in the CBA.

As the league becomes more professionalized, quite a few well-known international players have joined the CBA. Notable players include NBA All-Stars Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis and Kenyon Martin.

Some foreign players are a crucial part of their teams. A few have NBA experience. Many have played at American universities with good teams and have some experience playing in Europe, Argentina, Turkey, Israel among other countries.

Over the last decade, over 200 international players have participated in the CBA.

As of right now, the CBA has grown to be the No.1 basketball league in Asia, and some believe, within ten years, China will become one of the top four basketball powers in the world.

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Zhenyu Li, a contributing columnist for some of the world's foremost sports publications, authors the "Beyond Gold" column for People's Daily Online in China.