The Chinese Fascination With Basketball

In this article by the Atlantic, the writer highlights why Basketball is China’s biggest sport. Did you know that an estimated 300 million Chinese people play basketball? This is roughly equivalent to the population of the United States. The Atlantic writes that “Many Americans are just now learning of China’s enthusiasm for the sport as the success of Jeremy Lin, a California-born Knicks player of Chinese heritage, becomes an international phenomenon. But the sport is almost as old in the land of Lin’s ancestors, and maybe even more popular, than it is in the U.S.”

Basketball was introduced to China over a century ago by YMCA missionaries just a few years after the game’s 1891 invention in Springfield, Massachusetts. After that, it seeped into the fabric of Chinese lives. Until the NBA arrived in early 1990s, basketball had come to feel so intrinsically Chinese, most people did not even associate it with America. Unlike in the U.S., where a garden of sports — from baseball to football to ice hockey — all play a part in shaping a diverse athletic landscape, in China, basketball is perhaps the only true national sport, the only sport that brings together people of all backgrounds and kindles the nation.

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Some of the first groups that embraced basketball in China were mostly college students, western-minded scholars, and, most importantly, members of the Communist party, who loved the sport for its cohesive power. You would be surprised to know this but during the Long March (the Red Army’s storied year-long retreat in the 1930s to evade the Nationalist army), Communist soldiers and officers played basketball to lift their spirits and boost solidarity.

The Atlantic reports that “From 1949 to the early 1980s, the first-rate basketball players were all from the military teams, with the Bayi at the top,” recalls Wang Yongzhi, the associate editor in charge of Olympic sports coverage at Tencent.com, China largest web portal. He was referring to the Bayi Rockets, an all-military men’s team named after the founding date of the PLA (bayi means August 1). It dominated Chinese basketball well into the 1990s, producing stars such as Wang Zhizhi, China’s first player to enter the NBA.

Though the sport was favored by the country’s old military system, the Bayi team couldn’t keep up with the changes of the 1990s and saw its dynasty decline as commercial basketball leagues entered the market and started importing foreign players. Most recently, the team captured international media coverage for brawling with players of the Georgetown Hoyas in a supposedly friendly match last fall. The trajectory from then to now is endless.

To learn more about China and basketball, visit this article by  The Atlantic