The Chinese made their debut in the 1936 Olympics and reappeared in 1948, being eliminated in the group stage on both these occasions. After 1949, basketball became increasingly popular in China. The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) was established in June 1956 and basketball careers received government support until 1995, when the CBA introduced its own league, which was greeted with enthusiasm by fans and the media alike. To date, the league has made big improvements in both players' skills and marketing the game to a growing local audience.
Chinese basketball, especially the men's team, outdistanced all other Asian teams after China's participation in the Asian Games in 1974. The Chinese men's team finished 8th twice, in Atlanta and Athens, the best performances in their seven appearances in the summer Olympic Games; while the women's team won the silver medal in the Barcelona Games in 1992.
Basketball exchanges between China and the United States dates back to 1979, when a U.S. university All-Stars Team came to China and was beaten twice by the Chinese Army Team. The Washington Bullets' visit to China in August 1979 marked the prelude of the interaction between NBA and Chinese basketball for decades, including NBA first hosting the Chinese national team in 1985 and regularly providing training for the team through U.S. coaching clinics, exhibition matches and superstars paying visits to China through hundreds of touring basketball events. Via TV, magazines, newspapers and the Internet, more and more Chinese have become hooked on NBA-mania. Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd and others on the list of the 2008 U.S. "Dream Team" are widely known. Chinese fans eagerly await the spectacular slam dunks and court antics of these stars during the Olympics.
China's foremost sporting son
Another NBA superstar in the opening game drew much attention all around China. Yao Ming, 2.26 meters tall, the anchor of the Chinese national team at center, has become a national hero since his first pick by the Houston Rockets in the 2002 NBA draft. He is not the first Chinese basketball player to compete in the world's most popular professional game. Song Tao and Wang Zhizhi were drafted respectively by Atlanta Hawks in 1986 and Dallas Mavericks in 1999. But only the chiseled-faced Yao has taken the NBA by storm.
"Yao Ming has the potential, the capability, of changing the future of basketball," said Bill Walton, a famous NBA commentator, after watching Yao's games when he was only 20 years old. Walton had clearly seen the potential in the young rising star.
As the starting center for six successive NBA All-Star Games, Yao not only has a strong frame and excellent shooting skills, but also a sharp mind and amiable personality. Children model themselves on Yao because of his effort, diligence and accomplishments. Even the basketball fans in remote Chinese provinces are able to watch Yao on television. His success in the NBA is encouraging children to live their dreams and believe in themselves. Meanwhile, basketball has become the important bridge connecting people from different cultures. Yao has a lot of friends in the NBA, including Shaquille O'Neal who calls him "Gemener" (meaning "brother" in Chinese). Yao's Restaurant and Bar is often full of celebrities; the film The Year of the Yao and his biography Yao:A Life in Two Worlds co-written by Richard Butcher, of ESPN Magazine, have been a big success. Yao Ming, ranks 5th in Time Magazine's 100 Olympic Athletes to Watch issue on July 27, and he is changing the definition of sport in China and the United States.
Comparing the two countries, American basketball, especially the NBA, values speed, efficiency, power and diversity, and it is personalized and extroverted; while Chinese basketball requires cooperation, practicality and values the honor of the team represented by Yao.
Olympic spirit the winner
Sports Illustrated, a famous American journal, when analyzing international sports structure, predicted the most significant cross-cultural handshake would be between Dwight Howard and Yao Ming in the Olympic basketball opener, second only to the Richard Nixon-Mao Zedong meeting in 1972, which initiated a new era of cooperation between the two countries.
In the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Team USA finished first in the medals race with 103, of which 35 were gold; China overtook Russia and ranked second with 63 medals, 32 of which gold. China Men's Team lost all the matches against the U.S. Team in the previous four Olympic Games, yet the game on August 10 was considered by many fans as the competition of sports image between China and the United States. While the scoreline was important to fans, the image of Chinese athletes over the three decades of reform and opening up and the Olympic spirit of "higher, faster, stronger" is much more important.
Yao had the final word when he expressed how he felt after the big battle. "This is a personal Olympics for me. Everyone is proud. It felt great, all the flags and people cheering. It was a great atmosphere."