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Yao's success sparks hoops craze in China
Updated: 2005-06-16 09:18

Wu Qinglong shot a quizzical glance at his translator, as if there was an obvious answer.

The question was simple: Where does basketball rank in the minds of the Chinese?

"Basketball is the most popular sport," said Wu, coach of the Chinese team playing in the USA Basketball Youth Development Festival.

"Basketball is first, soccer second and table tennis, or as you say, ping-pong, is third."

Since the arrival of Yao Ming in the NBA in 2002, the game invented in America has exploded in the world's most populous country. Some estimates say as many as 300 million of China's 1.3 billion population now play basketball. If those estimates are correct, China has more people playing basketball than the entire United States population.

On display at last week's USA Basketball Youth Development Festival at San Diego State University were teams from two countries that have seen surges in basketball interest among their younger players.

China had the emergence of Yao Ming.

New Zealand, with a population of only four million and a sporting consciousness dominated by rugby, finished fourth in the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis. It was the first time the country had qualified for the premier international tournament.

"That was huge," said New Zealand's Thomas Abercrombie, a 17-year-old, 6-6 forward who is being recruited by American colleges.

"People who didn't even watch basketball in their lives were watching the TV. The whole country got behind them. That raised the whole profile of basketball in New Zealand."

The Far East

China's basketball system is becoming more sophisticated. With modern professional basketball dating to 1989, the country now has a system in which players become junior pros as early as 13, spending part of their day in school and part working on basketball.

"Basketball is very big in China," said Zhou Peng, a 6-10, 15-year-old center. "I don't know the number participating, but it is very big."

Without question, the key moment came in 2002 when Yao Ming entered the NBA. The 7-6 center became a hero across Asia. Broadcasts of his Houston Rockets games in China have drawn more than 100 million viewers overseas. Yao became an All-Star on the court and a star in television commercials off it.

"Yao has a very big impact," said Chen Jianghua, 16, a 6-2 guard who scored a team-high 14 points against the USA's White squad. "Everyone watches him."

The first modern professional team in China was a club team started in Shenyang and sponsored by the Anshan Steel Company. The Chinese Basketball Association was formed in 1995 and in 2004 had 12 teams. "That's a reason for young kids to play basketball in China," Wu said. "The young kids grew up with it."

Wu said some of the better teenage players didn't make the trip because of a national competition going on simultaneously in China.

Still, the group included a 6-11 forward, De Lehei, four 6-10 players and a 6-9 forward. Wu said there are more tall players competing in China.

In the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, China upset Serbia 67-66 to reach the quarterfinals before falling to Spain in the seventh-place game.

"It's been getting better and better at the grass-roots level," Chen said. "At the pro level a little bit, but not that much as in the younger levels."

Where rugby rules

In New Zealand, a teenager's basketball road mirrors what happens in America. Kids play for their high school team during the season, which runs from May through September, followed by club-team competition similar to the American AAU circuit in addition to a national tournament.

New Zealand has been bringing in coaches from America and from the Australian Institute of Sport, which has produced such players as WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson and Andrew Bogut, projected as a top pick in this year's NBA draft.

The success of the Tall Blacks, as the team is known, in the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis was the turning point in interest.

"What I'm seeing now is an influx of parents putting their children into basketball programs," said junior team coach Tony Webster, a 1984 University of Hawaii graduate who has been in New Zealand for 17 years.

Webster said the junior team has five players getting interest from Division I American college teams.

Basketball in New Zealand has obvious obstacles. Rugby is the national pastime, and the country's geographical isolation means extensive travel is required to find top basketball competition. The players in the festival paid approximately $2,000 each and many will have to come up with $3,000 later this summer for another tournament in Australia.

The high school system isn't nearly as developed as it is in America. Abercrombie said his all-boys school of 2,000 students -- single-sex schools are prevalent in New Zealand -- has two basketball coaches.

"It is a bit of a problem being isolated and having to travel a long way to get competition," said Abercrombie, whose skills have generated interest from American colleges, including Indiana.

"We're just starting to get it going now."

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