Basketball: NBA, CBA, NCAA?… —by Jinny Batterson
When the University of North Carolina’s basketball team had a great season in 2008-2009, I was watching from a great distance. As berths in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 men’s tournament were assigned, I started to pay more attention. By early April, when that year’s UNC Tarheels won the national NCAA championship, I wanted to brag about my home state’s team to my students in Sichuan, China. Blank stares. None of them had ever heard of the NCAA. After a little reflection, I realized that college basketball is not a big deal in China. I found out that a college-level league was formed there in the late 1990’s, but so far had not gained a huge following. Many college students play pick-up games for recreation. Intramural contests are frequent in good weather, but formal college teams are relatively rare.
China mostly pays attention to professional basketball. Most of its stars come from specialized sports schools rather than from academic universities. In 2009, the tallest and biggest basketball star from China was Chinese center Yao Ming. Yao played in the U.S. as a member of the National Basketball Association team the Houston Rockets from 2002 to 2011. Before becoming an NBA player, Yao had already logged a number of seasons with the professional team the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), leading them to a Chinese championship in his final season. Yao Ming, at 7 feet 6 inches tall, has been the most notable crossover from the CBA to the NBA. By 2009 a few other Chinese players were playing for part of their careers in America. Most of my male students knew more about these stars than I did.
When I wanted to crow about the North Carolina Tarheels and their accomplishments to my students in China, I first needed to provide students with a good bit of background about basketball in the U.S. In the process of preparing to “teach” them, I learned that basketball has been played somewhere in the world in some form at least since the 1890’s. Then, a Canadian physical education instructor, Jim Naismith, devised a hoop-oriented game for some of his U.S. students. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, formed in the U.S. in 1906, did not originally include basketball as one of its sports. It was at first mostly concerned with American football.
Intercollegiate basketball competitions began in the U.S. during the 1920’s, with the first NCAA-sanctioned men’s basketball tournament held in 1939. By now, “March Madness,” as the Division 1 men’s tournament has come to be called, dwarfs most other U.S. college athletic competitions. From the first contest in 1939, which featured 12 teams, the field has expanded to 68 teams in 2015. Televisions in restaurants, bars, and living rooms now broadcast little else for the final couple of weeks each March.
Basketball has plenty of fans in China, though “bracketology” for college teams is not likely to take off there any time soon. The link between basketball and China that most impresses me is not the prospect for American-style tournaments or additional Chinese university teams. What I remember first of all when I think of basketball in China is that the Chinese delegation that marched into the Birds’ Nest stadium at the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was co-led by basketball great Yao Ming and by Lin Hao, a 9-year-old survivor of the Sichuan earthquake who barely came up to Yao’s waist. After his primary school collapsed in the quake, Lin, who’d escaped serious injury, had returned to the rubble and was able to rescue two other students. Interviewed later, he’d explained that as class monitor, it was his responsibility to look out for his classmates.
What I remember next is that in 2009 a friend in the Sichuanese city of Dujiangyan, one of the areas hardest hit by the quake, told me that the NBA was hosting exhibition games and subsidizing the construction of new basketball facilities in his city to encourage sports participation as a way of helping heal some of the trauma the quake had caused. From what I can tell via Internet posts, that NBA support has continued, both in Dujiangyan and in other parts of Sichuan province. Yao Ming, now retired from playing basketball, has played a major role in promoting the NBA’s efforts.
For me, who wins tournaments, either college or professional, matters less than the prospect of young Chinese guys playing friendly games and practicing their skills in fields and stadiums where there was formerly just post-earthquake debris. It’s a use of basketball that I think basketball’s founder, Jim Naismith, would heartily have approved.