Courting the stars of the future

Courting the stars of the future
China's and NBA star Yao Ming watches the Brooklyn Nets versus the Sacramento Kings during the 2014 NBA Global Games at the MasterCard Center in Beijing on October 15, 2014.

As he walked to the courtside seats with his wife and young daughter, Yao Ming stole the show from the stars of the NBA's Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets at their pre-season game in Shanghai on Sunday.

Despite not making a speech or waving to the audience, the retired "Chinese Giant", who was awarded the nickname not only because of his height - 2.26 meters - but also his successful playing career, still received thunderous cheers and applause, a fitting indication of how much Chinese basketball fans love and miss him.

"Yao is the pride of China," said Zhang Jiayang, a member of the welcoming audience. "He was the first Chinese superstar in the NBA. I don't know when we will see the next Yao Ming.

"If only Yao Ming was on the team! That's what I was thinking when I watched the national men's basketball team suffer humiliating losses at the Asian Games," said the 26-year-old basketball fan from Shanghai.

"It used to be exciting to watch the team play because Yao could always lead the team to win a game."

Yao is greatly missed, not only in the NBA but also in the Chinese national men's basketball team, which has recently floundered in a sea of losses, including finishing fifth at the recent Asiad in Incheon, South Korea, the team's worst result at the Asian Games in 40 years.

However, superstars such as Yao and Michael Jordan are "scarce resources that we may come by once in 100 years", said Zhang Qing, CEO of Key Solution Consulting Company, which specializes in sports consultancy.

"Instead of waiting a long time for a superstar to emerge and improve the national basketball team's performance, a better solution would be to improve on-campus basketball education and also the professional talent-training system to raise the overall level," he said.

"And once we do well in on-campus basketball education, maybe we will have a better chance to see the next Yao Ming stand out."

Sports undervalued

The Chinese Basketball Association estimates that more than 300 million people play basketball in China. That's roughly equivalent to the population of the United States, according to Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner.

However, it seems that China hasn't found a way to grow a strong group of players from the game's huge fan base and its reserves of talent.

Among the problems facing the Chinese basketball talent-training system are the facts that physical education is undervalued on campus, and that sports tournaments between schools are underdeveloped, according to Zhang Qing, who worked as a consultant for the CBA from 2005 to 2009.

"In the US, physical education is a fundamental part of school education. Those students who are interested in basketball have plenty of time to practice after school.

There are also professional coaches on campus to train them, and the students have abundant opportunities to improve their skills in school tournaments at all levels," he said.

"By contrast, PE is just another class in China, and students are burdened with a heavy study load after school.

We also have high school and university basketball tournaments here in China, but the tournaments are not widespread and the coaching is not professional," he added.

He pointed out that most of the players in the CBA went to schools that specialise in sports training, and they entered the league directly after graduation from high school.

Fewer than 100 studied at college and played in Chinese University Basketball Association games before advancing into the CBA.

"The former group may play better than the latter at the early stage because of the intensive skill training they have received since childhood, but their deficiency in understanding basketball as a team sport will gradually show," he said.

That may explain why Chinese youth basketball teams give strong performances but the adult team remains weak.

"Moreover, the mindset that 'winning is everything' has bred foul play in some provincial youth basketball teams, which alter their players' ages to make them appear younger so they will have an advantage in the younger-age category," Zhang Qing said.

Rule change

The US National Basketball Association, the world's premier basketball league, changed the rule relating to draft age in 2006, in the hope that after playing in National Collegiate Athletic Association games, younger players would be better prepared mentally and physically for the fierce competition in the NBA.

The 2006 draft stated that players would not be eligible to enter the draft immediately after graduating from high school.

Instead, players became eligible for draft selection a year after high school graduation, and must also be at least 19 years old by the end of the calendar year of the draft.

DeMarcus Cousins, the Sacramento Kings' centre and a member of the US men's national team that won the gold medal at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, spent a season playing for the University of Kentucky before he was drafted by the Kings in 2010.

He told China Daily that the experience of playing in the NCAA was an important step for him prior to playing at a higher level in the NBA.

"It (playing in the NCAA) helps you grow to be a better person, helps you understand the game better, helps you realise that it's not just about you. In high school, it's usually the way that you just go out there and do whatever you want," he said.

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