Tag Archives: Yao Ming

Enduring appeal of Chinese hoops confirmed by Guangdong derby

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 stands out on the court with a height of 2.17m

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.

The home fans use the costume of traditional lion dancing, which originates in Guangdong

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.

Tigers head coach Du Feng is a former Chinese international and a Guangdong legend

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.

What can other sports learn from the Morey-China controversy?

Even non-basketball fans might have noticed the recent controversy involving the NBA in China.

The sport’s most successful league has been frantically trying to undo the damage caused in its biggest overseas market after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey retweeted a message of support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

He could not have imagined that the seven words it contained would result in China Central Television (CCTV) halting its broadcasts of NBA pre-season games and all Chinese sponsors suspending their agreements with the NBA.

The tempest was sparked when Morey used Twitter to shared a photo with the slogan ‘Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong’, which seemed to support the recent violent demonstrations in the special administrative region that officially became part of China in 1997.

He deleted the tweet an hour later, however, screenshots of it had already spread rapidly in China and irritated government and sports officials plus many Chinese people. Neither Morey himself nor the NBA acted swiftly enough to defuse the tensions, and 28 hours later, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) suspended all co-operation with Houston Rockets.

Two days after his controversial retweet, Morey used Twitter to insist that he had been simply voicing his own thoughts which in no way represented the Rockets or the NBA, but his words did not work.

At the same time, NBA president Adam Silver flew to Shanghai and met with his CBA counterpart Yao Ming, who as a player spent nine seasons with the Houston Rockets.

Silver said that the NBA would not apologise for Morey’s words as it values the right of having freedom of expression. However, this did nothing to assuage the anger felt in China, as Yao Ming made clear.


Why did people in China react so strongly to Morey’s post? What the NBA seemingly failed to understand is that it referred to separatism. Americans underestimate the significance in China of this issue, which can be compared to the sensitivities surround issues of race in the United States.

So whatever the NBA did – or did not – say in responding to the dispute, it had already entered into a forbidden zone of Chinese culture and both the Houston Rockets and NBA were going to made to pay for it.

With a population of 1.4bn, and a growing affluent middle class, many professional sports leagues around the world consider that China either is, or has the potential to become, their most important overseas market.

But in order to really succeed in developing it as a lucrative source of income, foreign teams, clubs, and leagues need to be aware of the areas of Chinese society and politics where they should tread lightly, lest a seemingly negligible thing such as a tweet might spark a huge loss.

Both the Chinese government and people have an adverse reaction to foreigners supporters separatism in any part of China. This stems in part from the fact that the country has suffered from numerous foreign invasions since the 19th century and spent more than 100 years to repel them.

Consequently, the whole notion of the integrity of their nation and its borders is extremely important to Chinese people, and that is why separatism is a red line that cannot be crossed by anyone.

The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty. This issue is non-negotiable.

– Brookyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai

The owner of another NBA team, Joseph Tsai of the Brooklyn Nets, explained the problem in an open letter: separatism is a third-rail issue in China.

“The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.”


So this means that foreign companies will make trouble for themselves if they treat the likes of Hong Kong, Macau or Tibet as singular regions. Doing so risks huge negative effects in their dealings with China and Chinese companies and organisations, even where good relations existed previously.

Whether people in the West believe it is right or wrong, any business, league or individual who wants to make profits in China must learn to stay silent on Chinese domestic affairs.

As the Chinese government insists on the principle of non interference in the internal affairs of other countries, so it expects those countries to reciprocate and avoid any actions detrimental to China or its citizens, or which challenge its status as an independent country.

In short, the NBA stands accused of not respecting China or its people, and as one influential basketball commentator said: “You cannot earn money from China but show no respect to your Chinese consumers.”

People have compared this current controversy with the one sparked in the NBA five years ago when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was fined $2.5m and banned for life from the league for racist comments.

Nobody supported Sterling’s “freedom of expression” when his words offended others, and that is why Chinese NBA supporters do not agree with the idea that freedom of speech can excuse Morey’s post

Nobody supported Sterling’s “freedom of expression” when his words offended others, and that is why Chinese NBA supporters do not agree with the idea that freedom of speech can excuse Morey’s post. The NBA did not react with sufficient measures in its aftermath, and thus its many Chinese fans felt offended.

Of course, one league’s mishap is another’s opportunity, and whilst the NBA continues to suffer from the fall-out of the Morey episode, European football and basketball leagues are receiving more attention than before.