Although football has made great strides in China in recent years, basketball remains the nation’s pre-eminent sport.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Guangdong, China’s wealthiest province, which has three teams in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), including nine-time champions the Guangdong Southern Tigers.
The province is also home to China’s leading football club and double Asian Champions League winners Guangzhou Evergrand, but it was the CBA derby between Guangzhou Loong Lions and Guangdong which drew me to this city whose wider metropolitan area is home to 25 million people.
Hosts the Loong Lions went into the game on a dismal run of seven straight losses, languishing 17 places behind their top-ranked visitors to the Tianhe Arena, which is located in the city centre and next to Tianhe Stadium -Guangzhou Evergrand’s home.
Very few of the arena’s 8,628 seats were left unoccupied, but it felt like most spectators present had come to watch Guangdong’s star player Yi Jianlian, who is also captain of the Chinese national team.
Yi is widely believed to be China’s best-ever domestic player after the legendary Yao Ming, an eight-time NBA All-Star with the Houston Rockets, famously known as ‘The Great Tall of China’.
Yi spent seven seasons in NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, and Washington Wizards but failed to replicate Yao’s achievements in the USA. However, the 32-year-old centre is still a key performer for the national team.
In the 2019 FIBA World Cup tournament, he proved his continuing reliability whilst younger team-mates kept making mistakes as hosts China suffered the ignominy of failing to qualify from the group stages.
Since Yao’s retirement in 2011, Chinese basketball has stagnated, and this most recent World Cup performance frustrated fans further. To some extent, Yi represents a link in their memories to better times for Chinese basketball.
Back to the derby, and it the gap between the abilities of the two teams was evident, but the overall quality of the match was not bad. The Lions worked hard to stay in touch with the Tigers, but Yi carried the visitors to victory with a game-leading 21 points and 20 rebounds.
Despite the Tigers claiming a 116-90 victory, the atmosphere remained vibrant as the home supporters waved flags and balloons, whilst the away fans also cheered on their heroes.
The Southern Tigers are undoubtedly the best basketball club in China and have contributed multiple outstanding players to the national team. Their current coach, Du Feng, is also one of their legends as a player.
Whilst the NBA continues to set the standard for domestic leagues around the world, the CBA is arguably the second strongest, and the number of basketball fans in China far exceeds those for football. The Chinese Super League’s clubs represent 11 provinces, whereas the CBA’s 20 teams are from 14, including many remote areas such as Xinjiang, China’s western-most region.
Its widespread popularity throughout China is often attributed to the high profile of Chinese players such as Yao and Yi in NBA, but the reasons for basketball’s continuing dominance run deeper than that.
Firstly, it still has a far greater number of participants compared to football, especially in schools, and a system of youth camps enable promising players to gain access to professional-level training at a very early age.
Meanwhile, basketball hoops are nearly as common as ping-pong tables in China, with football pitches needing far more space in often crowded cities.
Despite the troubles of the men’s national team, basketball in China is also run very professionally, especially since Yao Ming has become the president of CBA. He cancelled many old policies and started a revolution in Chinese basketball. As China’s best-ever player, he has massive prestige and carried a huge amount of trust among fans.
Time will tell just how popular football can become in China but, for now, the nation’s No.1 sport will continue to be basketball.