Saturday’s loss to Brazil marked a low point for Chinese basketball as Yi Jianlian and the National Team failed to get out of the group stage for the first time since 2000. (Photo: Osports)
A NiuBBall road trip out of Beijing a couple of months ago led me to a conversation with a Chinese basketball old-hand who wondered: Would the National Team have been better off if they had lost to Jordan in the FIBA Asia Championship last summer?
Now that the sky is officially falling in the world of Chinese basketball after the Men’s National Team went down hard to Brazil two nights ago in London, the question has reached its highest point of relevance. The 98-56 loss brought China’s overall record in London to 0-4 and officially eliminated them from the knockout round. For the first time since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, China won’t make it out of their group, no matter what result they attain tonight against Great Britain. And for the umpteenth time since, well forever, people are debating the necessity and the degree of which changes need to be made in Chinese basketball to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
Of course, to the powers-that-be at the Chinese Basketball Association, the double image of China losing its place as Asia’s best basketball team while simultaneously losing out on an automatic bid to the Olympics is one best left for 2am nightmares. Losing on the world’s biggest international stage is one thing; not being able to participate is far worse.
But it’s exactly those type of earth-shattering failures, however, that tend to bring about earth-shattering changes. And there lies the logic of our China old-hand: Sure, losing to Jordan would have been a step back in the short-term. But in the long-term, it may have spurred the CBA to reflect upon itself and finally make some changes in the way it directs Chinese basketball.
In some ways, China’s actually been down that road before. Failure at the Asia Championship happened as recently as 2009 when China’s first real sans-Yao Ming foray into continental competition went up in flames after they were handily dealt with by Hamed Haddadi and Iran in Tianjin.
Though the loss was unacceptable for the win-in-Asia-at-all-costs CBA, the 2009 debacle was eventually amended through less dramatic means. The silver medal was a loss of face for the Chinese no doubt, but due to the World Championship’s inclusive qualification standards that automatically send the top three finishers at the Asian competition to the big world show, China still was assured of an all-important spot in Turkey in 2010. Nonetheless, change came in the form a new coach as Guo Shiqiang was replaced shortly before the start of the World Championship by American Bob Donewald Jr. in April 2010, who at the time was fresh off of a highly successful debut campaign with the Shanghai Sharks, leading the team to the CBA semi-finals one year after they finished in second-to-last place.
Order was quickly restored under the guidance of their new coach. Though the lending of the Asian throne to Iran resulted in a panic-stricken loss-of-face, it turned out to be just a small smudge on Chinese hoops after Donewald led the team into the knockout round later that summer.
In the end, things worked out, at least from a competition standpoint. A loss a year ago to Jordan, however, would have resulted in a much different reality for China; one that very likely would have involved the unspeakable scenario of non-qualification for the 2012 London Olympics. Then — and only then — as the argument goes, after that catastrophic failure would we have possibly seen some important changes to the system that has so far failed to consistently develop high-level international players.
In fact, some changes might be underselling it; a complete overhaul is probably more appropriate. Those who argue the former, including some members of the Chinese media, who have used the last 48 hours to heap blame on Donewald for the winless trip in London, are simply out of touch. All he’s done is win at every level he’s been asked to win at, starting in Turkey in 2010, continuing with an Asian Games championship later that summer before finally taking home gold at the Asia Championship in Wuhan.
No, bringing in a new coach, Chinese or foreign, isn’t going to fix what’s always been truly wrong in Beijing, which is the inability to identify and develop top-level players.
Even for those who have casually tuned in to watch any of China’s last three games against Russia, Australia and Brazil, one fact is clearly evident: China just isn’t very good. None of this should be a surprise. If the common coach-speak, “you’re only as good as your talent,” remains true today, then the debacle in London is not Donewald’s fault. Placed in an extremely tough group with an aging, in-transition roster, it was always going to be tough for China to win a game, nonetheless advance into the knockout round. And when their best player, Yi Jianlian, who also happens to be the only person capable of consistently getting his own shot on offense, is limping around with a knee injury against a Brazil squad that is competing for a medal as he was two nights ago, China is arguably pretty bad.
The singular reliance on one great player is something we’ve all become used to. Whereas the National Team solely relied on one all-world player, Yao Ming, to shoulder the on-court burden throughout the 2000s, Yi finds himself in the same position in this decade — alone in the middle with little to no help around him. And while Yi is a good player in his own right at the international level, he is no Yao Ming, a Hall-of-Fame 7-6 center capable of dominating the game on both ends. Nor is he capable of leading China to anything past fringe status internationally.
Of course, it could be different. Opportunities to reflect and reform have already presented themselves to the CBA. In what should have been an era that saw the CBA capitalize on all-time highs in youth participation in basketball as a result of Yao’s global success by reforming its Soviet-styled system to better identify and develop the largest pool of basketball players on the planet. Instead, government officials remained satisfied enough with continued continental dominance and just-good-enough results at the Olympics and World Championships to keep everything the same.
Flash forward to present, and we can clearly see the effects of that decision. Talent wise, the cupboard in China is currently bare at the senior National Team level because of China’s failure to develop the next generation of basketball players. Young players are still selected based on bone tests that predict future height. Those who make the cut and play club level youth ball are relegated to six hours-a-day of mindless three-man weaves and other full-court lay-up drills. The ones who are cut are left in the cold as there remains little to no alternatives to develop their games, nonetheless get looked at by professional teams.
Speaking to the New York Times in July 2011, Donewald, as well as his National Team assistant, former Bayi legend, Li Nan, were quoted on the state of the Chinese basketball system. Their consensus: It’s broken and it needs to be fixed.
“When you work in Chinese basketball, you realize that the C.B.A., the clubs and the national team don’t care and don’t want to hear about the process,” Donewald said. “They just want results. But it’s by building the infrastructure that you win more medals and make more stars.”
“If height were the determining factor, we would be the best team in the world,” said Li Nan.
Yao Ming, speaking to Xinhua yesterday, was also critical of the system as he asked “We have 1.3 billion people, why can’t we develop elite-level international players?” His answer: Separation between sports and education.
The system is already starting to see trickles of change. “Chris” Tang Zihao, a Chinese-born point guard who showed enough promise to be recruited by his home province team,
Liaoning Jiangsu, opted instead to attend middle school in the States. Now entering his junior year in high school, Tang will play at prestigious Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. Tang, who is already being recruited by mid-to-high level D-1 programs, will almost certainly play college ball in the U.S. and could possibly be an important piece at point for the Chinese National Team in the years to come.
In DongGuan, the NBA and the CBA in the form of the DongGuan New Century Leopards, have teamed up on the 2011-constructed DongGuan Basketball School, which aims to develop top-level players through a more well-rounded and balanced program in comparison to club youth teams. It’s too early to measure its effectiveness, but the idea for the school is one that has been viewed as a step in the right direction.
But schools like DongGuan and players like Tang are unfortunately few and far between currently. Change from within is needed if Chinese basketball is to take the next step. And with fresh new investments coming in from Infront and Li-Ning, the CBA has the money and resources to at least start the process. Longtime vets Wang Zhizhi, Liu Wei, and quite possibly Wang Shipeng and Zhu Fangyu have seen their last Olympics. A new era of Chinese basketball has arrived, and its time to do something to ensure it gets on the right track.
If history is any indication, however, we’ll get a heavy dose of China’s next NBA-bound big man, Wang Zhelin, who during the next four years will be anointed as the next “next Yao” and the savior of the National Team for 2016.
We’ll never know what would have happened if Osama Dahglas’ last second shot had gone in for Jordan last year, and thus we’ll never know what the CBA would have done if China hadn’t qualified for London. But we do know this: On its current course, Chinese basketball will continue to step in a sideways direction. And until China takes a large enough step backward for decision makers to see the tattered state of their system, the slide-stepping is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.