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The Elephant, the Dragon, and the Basketball

September 27, 2012

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A long time ago, we were taught that things in China come in threes. So when we found out that Karan Madhok (one) loves hoops, (two) ranks Bite-a-Pita close to the top of Beijing foreign restaurant power rankings, and (three) runs an English-language blog covering one of the biggest markets in Asia, we naturally felt it was our obligation to get him on NiuBBall. 

Madhok, who’s written for and SLAM among others, is the unquestioned go-to-guy for all things basketball in India and his blog, Hoopistani, is required reading for anybody who’s into ball in Asia. Now based in Beijing, KM will have his eye on China — good for us because now his words can appear on this blog. Enjoy, everybody.

Friends and foes, brothers and rivals.

China and India are two sides of the same magnet, forever connected yet forever repelling from each other. They are the world’s first and second largest populations. Each boasts of a civilization that is more than 5000 years old. Each is a country rich in culture, heritage, and personality. They are Feng Shui and Vastu Shastra. They are Tai Chi and Yoga. They are the Great Wall and the Taj Mahal. In recent years, they have been two of the fastest rising economies in the world. They are respectively the world’s largest communist and largest democratic nations.

They are neighbours.

Both China and India in drastically different ways have become global economic powerhouses and have rightfully garnered serious attention from investors all across the globe. No matter the hardships back home, the Indian Elephant and the Chinese Dragon are here, and they are here to stay.

And as the world’s two largest markets, both China and India have received special attention from the NBA and its commissioner, David Stern, in recent years. Stern has made no secret of the fact that he has been looking to expand the NBA’s worldwide brand, and the world’s two largest populations will be his major vehicle to carry out these ambitions. China has already more than compensated in their part of the bargain, accepting basketball as the nationís most popular sport, seeing the rise of a well-oiled machine in the CBA, and seeing their national squad rise to participate (but not always competitively) against the worldís best. In China, basketball became much, much more than just the NBA — it became a lifestyle and a mainstream obsession.

But the in Elephant India, basketball has found an animal far tougher to tame to accept its ways. Sport in mainstream India means one word and one word alone: Cricket. Indians eat, sleep, drink, laugh, cry, obsess, and fully live embroiled in Cricket. The game is found in the country’s every nook and cranny. Like China, traditional Indian parents may still preach academics over sport, but for those who do have the courage and talent to seek out their sporting dreams, the overwhelming majority thinks just cricket, cricket, and cricket.

It’s no wonder than that while India’s Cricket national team are world champions, the same country can’t field a basketball squad good enough to beat Syria. While India’s professional cricket league (IPL) is catching up to the NBA and English Premier League football as one of the most lucrative in the world, the country’s best basketball players are still only semi-professionals since a pro basketball league is still a long way away from realisation.

In Asian basketball competitions, China dominates the way that the USA dominates the world stage. A loss for China at any Asian level is sacrilege and anything other than first place is considered a failure. India has comparatively far humbler ambitions: While India does get to play the bully against its South Asian neighbours (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives), they are often the whipping boys themselves when they face Asia’s best in Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei, or China. Although results have been slowly improving in recent years, India is still struggling mightily to break even the top eight in any Asian men’s competition.

I’m born and bred in India, and have been writing about basketball in India for my blog for nearly three years, a period in which I also worked as the communications head for the Basketball Federation of India (BFI). Less than two months ago, my life took me in a slight tangent and I found myself shifting base from New Delhi to Beijing: not the biggest shift geographically and culturally, but a whole new world and lifestyle in many other ways.

Now in China, I’m getting the opportunity to view first-hand the hysteria of hoops and the influence that the game has had across the country. There are several lessons to be learnt for the Indian hoops observer. In many ways, China is the hoops model that India, like every other Asian country, would like to emulate. Unlike other Asian countries, India has the population, the market, and thus the potential heavy interest of investors to make it up.

But as anyone who has dealt with business in each of the two nations perhaps already knows, there are vast differences between China and India. China is structured, almost too structured some would say, leaving little room for creative basketball minds and talents (on and off the floor) to thrive. India is almost the exact opposite, lacking any sort of consistent structure and thus a lot of basketball operations in the country are a few steps below the Western standard of professionalism. The growth of basketball in India is further hampered by poor infrastructure, slow bureaucracy, and just the general lack of interest, due to other ëcricketingí distractions.

Although it may not be able to match the quality of Chinese basketball or the sheer number of fans in the country, India does have a lot of potential. India’s private sector has been a growing attraction for investors, and these include investors who are ready to help the sport grow independently of the support (or the harassment) of the government. Case in point: IMG Worldwide, a leading global sports/media management company, signed a deal with India’s richest conglomerate company, Reliance, to sponsor the growth of different Indian sports. IMG-Reliance became sponsors of the Basketball Federation of India two years ago and have been slowly charting out plans to improve both the status of the game and the quality of the national teams. If China got their big boost in basketball nearly 20 years ago with the inception of the CBA, Indiaís big boost has belatedly arrived now.

Popularity of Chinese basketball skyrocketed when Yao Ming was selected first in the 2002 NBA draft and went on to become a superstar player. No player in India (or for that matter, China) in the near future has the capacity to match Yao’s talent, but Indian fans have been pinning their hopes on their own idols who could one day help popularise the sport back home. Chief among them is 16-year-old Satnam Singh Bhamara, a teenager born and bred in a small Indian village who grew to be 7-foot tall and develop into a star young player for India. Bhamara is still only a high-schooler, but as he trains and improves his game at the IMG Academy in Florida, all eyes will be upon the young giant to take the next big step for Indian hoops.

Meanwhile, the NBA, who already have several offices and a well-run operation in China, have expanded their outreach into India in recent years. The NBA has been running several grassroots programmes in India since 2010 and opened their first India office earlier this year. They have been able to work closely with India’s best players, coaches, and basketball administrators in this period and have genuinely impacted the increase of basketball following amongst young Indians with their multi-city competitions and events.

These are two countries with vastly different basketball aims: China dreams of being counted amongst the best teams in the world while India aims to move up the ladder in Asia first.

These are exciting times for the future of the accumulated 2.6 billion people in the two countries, and also for the fraction of those billions who eat, sleep, and live basketball. I’m just glad to find myself somewhere in the middle of it.

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Tracy McGrady, still the man in China

June 8, 2012

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Tracy McGrady starring in a Chinese beer commercial in 2012 might seem super random. But in China, it’s just good marketing.

McGrady, who averaged a career low 16.1 minutes off the bench for the Atlanta Hawks this season, may be well past his 13 points in 33 seconds prime from decade-past. But as one part of the Immortal Holy Duo along with Allen Iverson, the two most popular post-Michael Jordan NBAers in China of all-time, he is still largely worshipped in the Middle Kingdom. Whereas AI mesmerized China with his sick handles and short-on-height, big-on-heart game, T-Mac became an icon not just because he was arguably the most talented player in the NBA for a time, but also because of his unrivaled accessibility.

The most famous of Yao Ming’s long line of Houston Rocket teammates, McGrady achieved legendary status among Chinese because he was on television and in print the most. During Yao’s prime with Houston, the Rockets essentially became China’s home team. Beat writers from Titan Sports Weekly, Basketball Pioneers and other major Chinese publications were all sent to the States to follow the team, and almost all of their games were broadcast live on CCTV-5 in the mornings for fans to watch. The reason for all of that was Yao, but because of McGrady’s superb basketball ability and the national exposure it received in China, a lot of Chinese became more infatuated with the moves of the silky smooth 6-7 swingman than of their post-up 7-6 center.

And like Iverson, who’s throngs of obsessed fans was documented on this space last month, McGrady has is own legion of devoted followers. More times than I can count, a black basketball-playing friend of mine has been told that he looks like Maidi — McGrady — by kids as young as seven or eight to women as old as 80. He’s so popular, he was even named some sort of official ambassador to China by the Chinese government before flying over to China for what amounted to be a traveling rock tour that was sold out on every stop. Simply, everybody knows T-Mac in China. Ask someone who their favorite Houston Rocket of all-time is, and chances are you’ll hear Tracy McGrady.

So no, T-Mac selling beer at age 33 is not totally random. But, these dudes stealing his beer? That’s not only random, that’s just messed up. And it’s even more messed up considering T-Mac was nice enough to bring a variety pack, as evidenced by the one clear bottle that one guy holds up as Tracy hangs from the raised rim.

Luckily, McGrady still has the knees to land comfortably from the drop and the mellowness to still offer these tools his brew. “If you’re a brother, than drink with me!” he says at the end. If it was me, I probably just would have called them all sha bi, kicked their ball away and taken my beer away to some people who have some respect. Maybe that’s why I’m not an ambassador to China…

Meanwhile, in related past-their-prime NBA players selling beer in China, Shaquille O’Neal has one for Harbin Beer that’s been playing on CCTV throughout the NBA playoffs. Beijing Cream has a poll asking which one is better — my vote goes to McGrady because I actually think a deaf mute would do way worse than what I felt was relatively passable Mandarin (key word: relative). As for other NBA players, they already have done way worse.

(H/T The Basketball Jones and @Andrew Crawford)

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UCLA Bruins to tour China this summer

May 8, 2012

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The UCLA men’s basketball team will follow in the footsteps of Duke and Georgetown by embarking on a basketball tour in August in preparation for the 2012 season.

The Bruins, members of the powerhouse Pac-12 conference, are the first team to travel to China under the conference’s initiative to expand its brand into the Asian market.

“UCLA will represent the Pac-12 and plant a flag for the conference,” said Pac-12 commissioner, Larry Scott. “We expect this to be an annual basketball trip by our schools, playing future collegiate teams and the Chinese national team.”

Although it’s unclear where and against whom UCLA will play, Scott indicated that they will play the “equivalent of NCAA competition.” Duke played the Chinese U-23 Olympic National Team in Shanghai and Beijing last year.

UCLA is the most successful collegiate basketball program in America, having won a record 11 national championships in addition to 25 Final Four appearances. However, their team hasn’t had as much success in recent seasons and went 19-14 in 2011 en route to missing the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in eight seasons.

But that looks to be changing. UCLA secured the number one recruiting class in the country this spring and Chinese fans will have the opportunity to gawk at incoming freshman Shabbazz Muhammad, who is widely considered as next year’s top overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Last summer, Georgetown’s summer tour of China made international headlines after the team got into a violent, bench-clearing brawl with the Bayi Rockets, who play professionally in the Chinese Basketball Association.

Follow Edward Bothfeld on Twitter @bothfeef

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Jordan commercial reminds us why China matters

October 29, 2011


Why China?

It’s a question we immediately tackled when we first started this China/basketball blog back in September 2010. The really short version: Because China matters. Like, really matters.

We believe it because everywhere you go in this country, you see people playing basketball. We believe it because Yao Ming was being nominated for a spot in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame a mere month after retiring. We believe it because random outdoor games between foreigners and Chinese can draw the occasional 100 or so passerbys who are down to watch some free hoops. We believe it so much in fact, that we are in a small minority that believes LeBron James’ “Decision” to take his talents to South Beach was made in part to appeal to what is potentially the largest market in the world, China. As time has gone on, we believe it more and more.

Nike’s newest Jordan Brand commercial reminds us — again — why China is such an important spot on the basketball map.

Featuring the trio of Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, the commercial, dubbed “Love the Game,” aims to show everyone that despite their status perennial NBA All-Stars, these guys are just like the many people around the world who go out and play for the love of basketball. Not for endorsements, not for paychecks, not for fame — for love. Noting more, nothing less.

The commercial is interesting for a number of reasons, but what makes it so effective is its depiction of basketball as a game without sexual, racial, religious or even geographical boundries. Wade is seen in southern Florida hooping in seperate games with teams from the Miami Kiwanis Club League, the Flamingo Senior Rec Center League and the Dade County Municipal League. Paul balls in New Orleans and North Carolina, playing in the NOLA Inter-Parish League and the Bayou Women’s League. Melo does his thing in the northeast, playing in a Williamsburg pick-up run, a Five-Star Basketball Camp and a Jewish Under-40 League in Brooklyn, New York.

The message of the commercial is clear: If you love the game, the game has a spot for you somewhere. As big fans of basketball bringing people together — and as fiendish pick-up basketball junkies — we think that’s pretty cool.

But not surprisingly, it’s the commercial’s last scene that ultimately wins us over for good. After playing separately in their own areas in the U.S., the three meet up in NiuBBall’s home base of Beijing, China for some good old-fashioned nighttime run at the Drum and Bell Tower. And though cool in and of itself, the real reason we love this spot is because it is in harmony with our stomachs.  Keep a close eye on the screen at the 1:41 mark. Look familiar?

As people who live in China, we find the three’s decision to hoop in the Middle Kingdom quite interesting. With Nike’s gigantic travel budget backed by their own large bank accounts, CP3, DWade and Melo could have picked anywhere in the world to play. Yet, they picked China. Why?

Do you really need me to answer?

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Why China?

September 21, 2010


Why China?

It’s a question I’m asked all the time when I go back to the States and explain to people that I live in Beijing.

And it’s a question that I suspect a few of you are asking right now as you’re reading this.

Why China?

Notice, you didn’t ask why basketball?  You like basketball, you’re familiar with it — you know it matters. It’s accepted and therefore accessible; you watch it on TV, you play it with your friends, you read it in a book, in a newspaper or on the internet. You get the facts, you formulate opinions and you come to an understanding of what the game is and what it should be.

I know that basketball matters, too. I got the Basketball Jones when I hit my first lay-up on a ten-foot hoop as a kindergartner after school one day. Almost twenty years later, the game is still with me. While picking colleges, high quality indoor courts and good competition were a must, which as crazy as it sounds is part of the reason why I chose to attend the University of San Francisco, where my daily routine consisted of sneaking off into Koret in between classes to work on lefty hook-shots and playing hours of full-court run after class, before coming home to plop myself in front of League Pass for the rest of the night. Different people get off on different stuff, but for me, basketball is a high untouched by anything else.

Well, almost anything else.

Like putting the ball through the hoop for the first time, my first trip to China in 2002 was a surreal, life-altering experience and ignited a deep interest for the country within me, an interest that has yet to dissipate. Sure, rafting past Guilin’s straight out of Middle Earth karst mountains, hiking up Moon Hill and looking up at the Himalayan mountains as I walked through the streets of Dali all made a lasting impression, as they do on most people who journey through China’s southern region.

But, nothing can compare to my stay in Kunming, Yunnan Province, where my program placed me with a Chinese family for part of the summer. Coming as their guest, I was treated like a long-lost cousin and their genuine charm and warmth put me quickly at ease. Like hitting a cutting teammate for a back-door lay-up, the feeling cannot be had by reading a book, taking a class, or walking the Great Wall with a tour group – China is best experienced by feeling it, by living it. It’s why after I studied four semesters of Mandarin, I went back to study abroad for a year in Beijing. And it’s also why on my way back to my apartment from USF during my senior year – or on my way back from playing pick-up, I should say – I’d go six blocks out of my way to Shanghai Dumpling King for quick sip of tea with the owner, and the conversation that would go with it.

I don’t pretend to be a “China expert” or a “China hand,” or whatever else people like to call foreigners who have studied and/or lived in the country. Frankly, I don’t think such a thing exists. Sure, there are some incredibly smart people out there who have made this country their life, and there’s something truly scary when I meet a fellow native English speaker who speaks Mandarin better than I speak my mother tongue. But these monikers unfairly portray a country that is far too big, old and complex as something whose “mastery” is reached by simply meeting pre-set requirements and checking them off grocery list style. Safe to say it doesn’t work like that, and anybody who tells you they’re a Zhongguotong because they’ve done this, that and the other is most assuredly not.

But, I have paid attention. I’ve engaged society. And though I don’t claim to know it all, I definitely don’t know nothing, either. In all I’ve been here for more than two years, most of which have been spent in Beijing, the place where I’m currently based out of.  And naturally, as basketball is also permanently ingrained into my basic fibers, I’ve spent a lot of time around basketball during my time here. I’m not completely fluent, but I know Mandarin well enough to read Koulan Magazine and Basketball Pioneers. I can defend Troy Bell’s NBA career to the two Chinese I’ve ever met who know who Troy Bell is. I can understand Zhang Weiping’s blatant pro-China homerism on CCTV-5; stuff that makes Tommy Heinsohn sound like Jay Bilas in comparison. I can talk trash during pick-up games, argue with biased Chinese refs and direct traffic at the point to Chinese teammates.

With her 1.2 billion people, and an estimated 400 million basketball fans, trust me – there’s plenty of opportunity to call somebody over for a side pick-and-roll. Basketball is the city game, and being that China has the most cities in the world, basketball is clearly the Chinese game as well. From early morning, starting with the rhythmic patter of old Chinese women shooting two-handed set shots from 15 feet, to late at night when the lucky ones who live near the lighted courts scattered around Beijing wait twenty minutes to get on for one game of four-on-four half-court, basketball is always going on here.

As I see Ron Artest yelling “I can play!” at my face while an advertisement for the Chinese shoe company, Peak, playing in between quarters of a Celtics – Magic game, I recognize that other people realize this, too. David Stern opened up a separate NBA China division in Beijing to solely focus on expanding the League here in the PRC, and emphasizes expansion into the mainland at every opportunity. Seemingly every category of NBA player, from rookie lottery picks and bench players to recent All-Stars and past-their-prime stars, all wear Chinese brands on their feet, eager to cash in on this basketball crazed country. Some players have even taken it a step further, playing for the Chinese Basketball Association as an opportunity to prolong their playing career and sell their own shoes to the largest growing market in world history.

Why China?

Because even without basketball, China would still matter to the world.  But, being that both matter – to me, to the Chinese who live here, and ultimately to you and the rest of the world – it needs to be understood, it needs to be discussed and it needs to be shared.

I take pride that I’m able to lend you some insight on two things that really interest me, China and basketball. Hopefully, after reading my humble words, you’ll start to take pride in learning from me as I continue on my journey down this complicated Chinese path.

Welcome to China. Welcome to

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