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Pool tables line the sidewalks that flank the dingy little road leading to 40 basketball hoops that might alter the course of history. The NBA thinks they might, anyway. So does the Chinese Basketball Association. And so does the guy in charge, American technical director Bruce Palmer.
Established in July 2011, the CBA Dongguan Basketball School was conceived with no less a mission than dramatically improving basketball throughout China.
"It's remarkable," said Palmer, a longtime coach and trainer who has worked in Australia and Japan. "I've been to a lot of places around the world, and I've never seen anything like this."
The concept is simple, the execution anything but. Introduce NBA-style training to the nation's most promising 12 to 17-year-old players and their coaches in the hope of breaking the sport out of its decades-long rut here. No, it won't impact the 2012 CBA tip-off. But 2022 might be another story.
It's not an original idea, of course — there are dozens of basketball schools around the country. But the state-of-the-art school's affiliation with the NBA lends it both legitimacy and muscle. NBA Commissioner David Stern was in town for the opening, and current and former NBA players like Jeremy Lin, George Gervin, Al Horford and Bruce Bowen have stopped by for clinics. NBAhas also persuaded coaches and trainers to instruct at the academy, and it provides the curriculum.
The problems in China are systemic, ranging from coaches prone to overtraining to lack of advanced nutritional philosophies to players who feel their bodies just aren't built for the game.
Brian Goorjian coaches the Dongguan Leopard, the CBA team owned by the school's founder and funder. He said if the academy can concoct the right strategy for fixing the system, the formula could quickly spread and become a critical part of the cure the nation's been looking for.
"Once they get the model down and it's like McDonald's, then I think when they get it right and get 15 or 20 of these facilities in this country, that's really going to help basketball here," he said.
There are, of course, a few battles to be fought first. Improving training and nutrition have been Palmer's biggest challenges. He arrived last summer to find a school ravaged by injury — he says 52 of the 68 students in his charge at the time were hurt. He's worked hard to drive home simple things, like knowing when to stretch and what to eat.
"We do our best to let them know what is the right food that gives you the best chance to recover," he said. "I can't feed them. (I can just try to convince them) don't have that pound of rice — you need protein for after a workout. More than anything else … that's the hardest thing to change with a young person, is that they're hungry, so they are going to fill their gut."
It seems to be paying off. As of Tuesday afternoon, the injury toll was down to seven of 132 students.
Palmer also blames poor nutrition — lack of protein in particular — for the slender frames that vex many Chinese players.
"I'm finding it very difficult to add muscle mass (to the players)," he said.
Of course, convincing the students is easier if it's coming from their countrymen, which is why the school is also focusing on training new coaches.
"They need professional coaching, and they need a system of skill development," said Goorjian, who is also the former coach of the Australian national team. "I think a test for the school is if it can accommodate those things — because it's hard to get quality coaches, and it's hard to get a development program — but if it gets to that point, not only will it be spitting out players, it'll be spitting out coaches."
With eight courts housing those 40 hoops, a vast weight room, even a 60m outdoor track, the school has benefitted from forcing itself to live up to the NBA standard.
Combination of sports and education
The NBA sees the venture as part of a multi-pronged approach to improving the game in China while still providing an education. Students spend the morning practicing and studying the sport, then attend classes in the afternoon.
NBA China CEO David Shoemaker sees room both for schools like the academy and for the traditional system.
"I understand that the majority of Chinese athletes are developed via the State-run system, which consists of teams at different levels, including amateur sports academies, regional professional teams and the national teams," Shoemaker said. "The NBA training center is a combination of advanced basketball training and education, providing Chinese basketball talent with more options in terms of career development."
Though the school is affiliated with the Leopard, owner Liang Zhibin built it with the idea of improving the sport and league as a whole, not as a means to groom future talent for his own team.
Goorjian says Liang really is that magnanimous.
"Knowing him and, I think people that do know him, understand he's that kind of guy," Goorjian said. "He really is. He's all for the betterment of basketball. (The Leopard have) sent some really good players to other teams — he always look at it as, if (a player isn't) going to play 20 minutes a game for us and he's a good player, we need to send him to another team where he can play.
"I know he has a mindset that we need better Chinese players, and I think that his vision of the basketball school is more about that than it is about the Leopard."
The school plans to grow at a controlled pace, gradually tightening its selection standards as it expands to an eventual enrolment of 350. They won't all go on to become players — in fact, most won't. Some will become coaches or trainers or nutrition experts, others teachers or engineers or coffee-shop managers. Everybody knows that going in.
"One thing about Liang … patience," Palmer said. "I like the fact that this guy had the vision to build this. Down the road, it will pay a huge benefit. Huge. It might be a long time from now, I might be long gone, but it will have the ability to sustain."
Sun Xiaochen contributed to the story. Contact the writers at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org