Anelka v beijing

Looking At the Parallel Problems in Chinese Football and Basketball

A self-made owner, crazy about sports (some would say just plain crazy), likes to meddle in team management and decisions, and decides to bring in a big-name manager and a star player from the world’s top league. Cross-cultural comedy ensues as the team fights for victory even as the owner bumblingly does everything he can to keep them from winning.

Regular readers of this site may read the above and view it as an apt description of Zhu Jun, though that is not the case. The book is the tale of “Boss Wang”, Wang Xingjiang, the owner of the CBA basketball team the Shanxi Brave Dragons. His story, and that of American star Bonzi Wells which is included, may have served as a cautionary tale for Nicolas Anelka and Jean Tigana before they made the trip to China.

Boss Wang, like a lot of Chinese, was a big NBA fan and was frustrated his players didn’t play like the ones he saw in NBA games, but most of all, he was frustrated with his team finishing dead last. He sent them to a summer league in the US to get them to play “more American”, but after that failed, he found his solution, bring in an NBA coach.

This is where author Jim Yardley begins his tale of the Shanxi Brave Dragons.  His book follows that NBA coach, Bob Weiss, on his travels to China and then during his season with the team. The book touches on the story of Weiss, Boss Wang, the Olympics, the NBA’s relationship with China, and generally sports in China. I’m not going to offer a review of the book here, though I’d advise anyone who is interested in sports or China (and especially both) to go out and pick up the book, it’s an enjoyable, quick read.

What I want to focus on is something that quickly became obvious while enjoying Yardley’s tales, the similar problems Chinese football and basketball share.  Along the way, I also learned something new about Chinese football, the foreign involvement in the original league. Yardley mentions Jia A, China’s first professional league, saying, “In 1992, two ranking Chinese sports officials, Wang Junsheng and Xu Feng, joined with a Brit named Richard Avery of the sports agency IMG to introduce a commercial soccer league in 1994.”

The lack of a profit motive in Chinese sports is laid bare in Yardley’s book. He mentions the Shanxi team playing against Liaoning, having to fly into Dalian, a major coastal city, and then bussing it to Yingkou, a “small” (by Chinese standards) provincial city. The same was true when the team went away to Fujian, where they’d fly into Xiamen then have to take a bus to Jinjiang.  None of these are major cities and yet they were supporting professional teams, why? Yardly points out, “In China, teams were located where the powerful men who controlled them wanted them to be.”

It was true of the Brave Dragons as well. The team started out in Henan but later moved to Shanxi. Yardley tells the story of the move:

“He [Boss Wang] left Henan after officials in Shanxi Province offered him land and tax incentives to open a new factory in Linfen, the industrial city south of Taiyuan. Bringing the team was part of the deal. Shanxi was dripping with coal money, and provincial leaders wanted a pro basketball team to boost the province’s image.”

Fans in Xian know this all too well, projects and financial support from the Guizhou and Guiyang government led to the team leaving Shaanxi and ending up in southwestern China.

The similarities extended to how players are selected and developed. Bone tests were done on pre-teen youngsters to determine how tall they would grow to be and the best were selected for “elite” basketball schools. The result was that China’s oft talked about population of 1.3 billion is quickly turned into a tiny number of people actually playing the game. With the main feeder into the professional game being through a CBA team’s youth squad, there were little more than a couple thousand players who had any hope of making it into the pros. Anyone looking at the number of young people playing football in China knows that this problem extends beyond basketball.

Those who made it into the pros were still lacking. They were trained like students are in school, rote memorization, but that doesn’t transfer over onto the basketball court. If you play football with Chinese, especially those at a higher level, their touch is amazing and they’ll impress you with what they can do on the ball, but put them in a team game situation and they fall apart. Bob Weiss found this out all too well when he attended his first practice:

“The drills were universal: the weave, three-man full-court layups and two-man sets for passing and dribbling. The players ran them better than most American players; their footwork was price and their timing was almost flawless. The problems surfaced when they faced actual defenders in a game.”

Chinese players tend to have these skills which are “teachable” down pat, but its when you have to go beyond this muscle/mental memorization into teamwork and creativity that Chinese players tend to get lost.

Finally,a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to help change sports in China, Yardley paints a picture that is not optimistic.

“They [the CBA] oversaw a socialist-era system that produced poor players and desperately needed reform, yet their jobs, status, and livelihoods were dependent on that system.  Any outsider who wanted to improve Chinese basketball, and profit from it, not only had to persuade the CBA bureaucrats to change but also reassure them that change would not render them obsolete.”

Unfortunately, this is all too true. Everyone around Chinese football has been screaming that the game is sick for years, yet little has been done to change the sickness. Why? The problems go to the very top and unless a serious revolution in the Chinese sports system is put into place, we’ll continue to see limited success in “big ball” sports in China.

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