Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Games Begin With CHN At USA

First off, The Redeem Team will win The Gold. Pencil it in. On another note, Opening Ceremony, all I can say, wonderfully done. But make no mistake, The Games start today when United States play the hosts from Maoland. I’ve got a friend from Australia, Sonny, who’s in China since the beginning of August. His mission? Hoops-hunting, especially following what in every other country except U.S. call The Dream Team. Hey, it’s the Redeem Team, do you want a punch in your face?

The topic I wanna dig into in this blog, is the real/fake popularity of NBA player in the Far East. Yup, it’s not bogus, it’s real. It’s a fact, not fiction. Sonny stopped where Team USA stopped along the way to Beijing. The first stops were Macau & Hong Kong. Then Shanghai. He departed his home Aussie soil on August 1, flying north. He told me he did some additional research regarding Team USA, like watching The Road To Redemption or studying Coach K’s college sets. Oh, and what couldn’t be missing was a 1992 Basketball Tourney DVD. Just for as good as it gets times.

Team USA arrived to Macau a couple days later. So, what was the affection thrown at the NBA guys? Huge. They love them, whether it’s in China, Macau or wherever in the Southest Asia region. He told me a story how some young men were walking in front of his hotel, carrying US flags and chanting “Kobe!”... “LeBron!”. Amazing. When the D-Day came, Krzyzewski’s guys constantly got bombarded every where they went (note: D-Wade writes for the Associated Press about their journey to Beijing 2008.), especially The Holy Twosome - James and Bryant. Sonny’s not saying each and every player is chasing like those two, but they are. One through twelve. When 500 people chase you, it’s not fun. It can be for a while, but that’s it. That’s why Team USA isn’t in Olympic Village with other athletes. But, sure, they like going there. The bottom line, they’re popular as much as it gets.

Flash-Not-Crash Wade writes: *We did a lot of goofy things because we get real silly when we are all together. The first morning LeBron could not sleep so he woke everyone up at about 5:30 a.m. just to have breakfast at Cafe Deko. We weren't happy. By the end of the week we created a trend of having an early team breakfast which allowed us to continue to bond with each other.*

By last Saturday Sonny was with Team USA on an early flight to Shanghai. They were only there for four days, playing two games in four days, it was like an NBA season to some extent.

I asked Sonny if we should consider these games as meaningful. He said no. USA beat Russia by 21 points - and everyone started saying that USA might be beatable. Crap. As Wade said, *just because we won by 21 and not 36*. The next game they played Australia and, according to Sonny, they won by nine points, because AUS caught some lucky breaks. *Don’t believe the false hype that US Team won’t’ win it. I’m Australian and I should be in the front row shouting that we can beat Americans. Nah, that’s impossible. Okay, Spain can beat ‘em in one game off ten games... shoot, Sonny! Team USA can’t be beat.* I agree. This is gonna be the best hoops tournament in the history of OG, but lined with U.S. domination.

On Wednesday they were headed to Beijing, a moment Sonny have waited for. He says the affection for American players here is off the charts. He even saw the USA women's team. Lisa Leslie and Co. joined their fellow men in Shanghai so that they could arrive in Beijing together. Sonny: *Once they got to Beijing they were met by a ton of fans all chanting the same thing: Kobe! Kobe! Kobe! It’s like they’re in the United States.*

Today, Team USA plays China in China, but you might be surprised how many fans will wear American players’ jersey and root for them. George Bush will be there. USA on its home land in China? Quite possibly. The sure things in Maoland are these: smog, police state, modern venues and idolizing NBA hoopsters. Get ready for a night full of USA banners.

It will be one of the most watched games ever because they are estimating that it will be over one billion viewers. The game features two of China's favorite teams and two of China's favorite players, Yao and Yi of the Nets. So why would Chinese root for Americans when their icon Yao will be on the floor? A great post from Truehoop explains that:

-Yao Ming is No Kobe Bryant-

...a reader writes some thoughts about the mind of the typical Chinese basketball fan...

Style and scoring ability.

This is why Kobe Bryant is the greatest sports icon in China; not Yao Ming, not Yi Jianlian, not even groundbreaking hurdle-champion Liu Xiang.

This was the prevailing sentiment amongst those polled in the sold-out Qizhong Arena in Shanghai that was painted with 24s and 8s.

Perhaps it is part of the emerging young generation in China and their unquenchable thirst for all things foreign, but it is shocking how few fans list their fellow countrymen as their heroes. The fans in attendance were easily pleased, cheering even for referees calling fouls.

Witnessing the excitement for Kobe Bryant and this young Team USA, it is not unreasonable to expect there will be wavering allegiances among the locals when Team USA laces it up against an overmatched Chinese team this Sunday.

It is something that I have found the most fascinating in my two years over here in Shanghai. I am constantly asking Chinese friends, taxi drivers, and others I encounter if they like basketball, which players they like, and if they like Yao Ming.

The experience has left me convinced that I like Yao Ming a lot more than the vast majority of Chinese.

Few of them even say they like Yao Ming.

They like Tracy McGrady a heck of a lot better than Yao Ming, often expressing that Yao is lacking a quality that translates literally as "resolute heart”, but means something like determination.

I came to China with the erroneous perception that basketball has become popular in China because of Yao Ming, but it appears that he is a small piece of the puzzle. The main reasons I see that Yao Ming is not as much of a national hero as he used to be and that common sense would dictate are:

-He has yet to win a playoff series.
-His size makes him very hard to relate to for 99% of the population. Chinese fans want to idolize a player that they can imitate or relate to from a size standpoint. This is one of the main reasons hurdler Liu Xiang is much hotter and more popular than Yao Ming these days. The Chinese respect and admire people that were not given as many god-given talents, but work their tails off to become great. They can relate to that, even dream about that. That's tougher in the case of Yao Ming.
-Yao Ming is boring compared to a lot of players. I have played quite a few pickup games in China and from the 5'4 point guards to the 7-footers are all they are all showcasing their And One skills. (Yes, there are quite a few tall Chinese players all around. With the economic prosperity that China is enjoying currently, they are privy to the type of diet that was impossible before. Not to mention the one child policy allows parents to feed their children with food that was previously divided between many kids.) They are all about the flash, excitement, dribbling through the legs, behind the back passes. Yao Ming, while being one of the best centers in the NBA, just doesn't have that. That's why even if Houston were to win a title (and I think they can now with Artest) I suspect that in the U.S. and China alike you will find it boosting T-Mac's popularity more than Yao's.
-There is no doubt in my mind that the Chinese crowd will be divided on Sunday, the question is simply by how much. It is clear that if China had a better chance (maybe if Yao Ming was 100%) that the vast majority would be cheering unequivocally for China.
But because the true basketball fans realize that their chances are relatively slim, it is a harder question to answer. I asked several of the Chinese fans at the game last night about who they will be cheering for on Sunday and there was definite hesitation. After hesitating, the general consensus was that they want China to win, but that they will still be cheering for their favorite players, mostly Bryant, but for Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwight Howard too.

I relate it to the weird dynamic with fantasy sports when you have a star that is playing against your favorite team. On one hand you want your team to win, but some part of you wants to see your player shoot the lights out. If they could pick they would pick a Chinese victory, but they know that is slightly unrealistic so they will be cheering for great plays from their favorite players more than anything.

And after playing China, every game will be like a home game for Team USA. None of the non-Americans can garner the type of excitement and idolism that Kobe, Bron Bron, Melo, Howard, and Wade can deliver.

As the Chinese prospects keep maturing, it is certain that China will become increasingly relevant in the international basketball scene. It will be interesting to see how many great Chinese players it will take to start to swing popular sentiment strongly back towards China. It might just take some Iverson-type players to make that change (point guard Chen Jianghua, for instance). But my guess is it could take quite some time, and many exciting wing players, to truly change allegiances in China.

Now you know why I chose that freaky blog-post title. Let the basketball begin, let the frenzy begin. (And let the Wade-to-James alley-oops burn that beautiful Wukesong arena!)

p.s.: *It's like a pimple on his behind for Cuban, but $6-plus million is a big number for me... It's good to know I'm going to get it.* Ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson on winning $6.3M in arbitration against M. Cuban.

Posted by Foreigner in CS - Aug 10 2008 12:21AM

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