The People's Streetball

Streetball at two of China’s major universities is a lot like how streetball in America was in the 1990s. Back then, the baddest move in the NBA was Tim Hardaway’s “Killer Crossover.” Playing pickup at two schools, one in Xian and the other in Hangzhou, the meanest moves I encountered were a well-played stutter step and a driving-hanging-jumper, both effective in their own right. Now compare this to the inner city courts of the modern-day U.S., where elementary school kids are so skilled they are practicing the trick dribbles from the And-1 streetball tour.

Since the missionaries of the Young Men's Christian Association, clad in tight shorts and tennis shoes, first introduced the game to China at the turn of the 20th century, basketball has risen to the level of a national sport. The first national basketball league in China was established in 1956. By the end of the 1970s, NBA teams were visiting China for exhibition play. In 1992, the NBA opened its first office in Hong Kong. Based on its initial success, the NBA announced last January the formation of the multi-billion-dollar NBA China that will market the league and its products to what the NBA.com Website estimates to be 300 million fans, including 42 million weekly, regular-season NBA television viewers. It is this fan base, in part, which has coronated Yao Ming a national hero. At the street level, this translates into a lot of ballers hitting the courts at their local play grounds.

Yet even though Team China dominates international play in Asia year after year, and defeated top-seeded European teams in 2004 at the Athens Olympics, streetball seems to lag behind. A friend of mine, an ex-pat who is fluent in Mandarin, suggested that streetball is hindered by the government's penchant for social engineering, which means that every child who shows a knack for athletics is tracked into a sports university. For those not predestined for the big leagues, they are probably playing just for fun and harbor no dreams of signing a shoe deal with Nike.

Yet the enthusiasm is hard to ignore, and its easy to get out-hustled, or have someone land a jumper in your face. Perhaps what makes street ball in China so interesting are its egalitarian method of choosing teams and the loyalty displayed by fellow teammates. Call it "basketball with Chinese characteristics."

At the Xian Institute of Physical Education, an elite athletic college located in the central Chinese city of Xian, population approximately 3 million, there is a egalitarian method of picking teams for three-on-three. Instead of shooting for sides and taking the first three players who make it, everyone comes together, each player putting one foot forward to help form a circle. The ball is then dropped and the first three legs hit by the ball make up one team.

At another university in the southern city of Hangzhou, population 6 million, court etiquette also differs from that in the U.S. Generally, in American-style pickup, the winning squad stays on the court. If it continues to win consecutive games, those players waiting to get in next will draft players from the various losing teams to form a new challenger. This process may continue until, for example, the one best player from each of the five losing teams has been included—a kind of survival of the fittest based on free competition.

In contrast, the teams here in Hangzhou never changed. The team you entered the park with is the team you will play with all afternoon. If the winners keep beating the same challenging teams over and again, so be it. That is your unit and you remain loyal. There are no free agents.

At one point during the gameplay, the best Chinese player on the court rolled his ankle. Immediately both teams rushed over. One teammate propped up his leg. Another untied his shoe. A third offered suggestions and a fourth went to look for water. I wanted to be helpful so I opened my mouth to say, “Walk it off a little, try shaking it out,” but then thought better of it. This superstar’s recovery was clearly going to be a group effort.

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