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Yao: Team's Olympic pain must drive change

Wholesale reforms needed to reverse slide, says CBA chief

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-04 09:11
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Yao Ming

As excitement builds for a clash of titans at this summer's Olympic basketball tournament, China's men's team is lamenting its absence from the showpiece as the domestic game's administrators vow to beef up efforts to revive the struggling program.

With a feast of hoops in store at Paris 2024, Chinese fans will again be without a men's squad to root for after the team's second successive failure to qualify for the Games.

Chinese Basketball Association chairman Yao Ming insists there is no quick fix to the squad's slide down the global pecking order, but has called for long-term measures to improve player development and league operations.

"Are we going to keep things the old way and stay in our comfort zone? Or will we dare to take off a layer of our skin and renew the whole system from the inside out? We need to remember the pain to make a real difference," Yao said during a recent interview with China Central Television.

A former NBA All-Star who led Team China to a best-ever quarterfinal finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Yao's ambitions to revive the men's national program have encountered consecutive setbacks, with the two failed Olympic qualification attempts raising questions from domestic fans over his suitability as an administrator.

The Basketball Hall of Famer, who took over the CBA leadership in 2017, has attributed the men's squad's disappointing performances to a lack of high-intensity drills overseas and at home.

"Our best chance (to qualify for the Olympics) was at the home World Cup in 2019. Since then and with the pandemic breaking out, we lost the opportunity to compete in international drills and we've been left behind by the world," Yao said.

Due to a change of FIBA qualification rules in 2015, only the best performing Asian team at the World Cup can secure a direct Olympic berth. Previously, the winner of the Asian championships was guaranteed a spot.

Team China's worst-ever 29th-place finish out of 32 teams at last year's FIBA World Cup in Manila, conceded continental supremacy to Japan.

"I kind of expected that (we would miss out on Olympic qualification) before that trip," Yao said. "How they performed at the World Cup reflected the level of play in our league competition, which isn't sufficient to be competitive on the international stage."

Team China's lack of fight in all four losses in the Philippines riled fans and pundits alike, who have called for bolder measures to boost talent development.

Several key players, including starting guard Zhao Rui and forward Hu Jinqiu, have admitted that the CBA league lacks the necessary quality and intensity to prepare for international tests.

"Sometimes we don't need to play at full strength in the domestic league. We are not pushed enough," said Zhao.

"When we switch to international play, the pace, the physicality and aggressiveness on both ends of the floor from all the foreign teams are on the next level. We are just totally dominated."

Desperate to return to the Olympics, Team China pulled out all the stops for its Manila mission, including hiring Serbian great Aleksandar Djordjevic as head coach and adding Minnesota Timberwolves playmaker Kyle Anderson as its first-ever naturalized player.

Anderson averaged 13 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists, but struggled to gel with his teammates due to limited preparation time.

Without substantial changes within the domestic system, the gap between China and the world's best will surely continue to widen.

Djordjevic, who led his native Serbia to silver medals at the 2014 World Cup, 2016 Rio Olympics and 2017 EuroBasket, believes modifications to the competition structure in the CBA league could help.

"One of my proposals is to organize a 'China Cup' during the CBA season with a single-elimination knockout format," Djordjevic said during a recent interview with CCTV host Yu Jia.

"CBA players don't play must-win games often enough. By creating that urgency and level of difficulty, players have to make decisions in certain ways. That's something right now that we don't have (in the domestic league)."

Djordjevic also suggested that Chinese players should be more active in looking for opportunities to play abroad.

"Iron sharpens iron. In order to be great at the World Cup level, the only way is to go and play against them as much as you can, as many times as you can," said the 56-year-old, who as a player won three Euro-Basket championships, finished runner-up at the 1996 Olympics and won the world championships in 1998.

"You have to adapt your game and understand the level that is needed to play those teams. Just keep pounding the rock."

Djordjevic, however, is unlikely to be retained when his contract expires this summer, with fans and commentators urging the CBA to consider a more practical successor who knows the Chinese system better.

Former NBA and CBA star Stephon Marbury has pitched his ex-mentor Min Lulei, who currently coaches the CBA's Beijing Royal Fighters, as an ideal candidate.

"I think culturally it should be a Chinese coach," Marbury said on Monday during a charity basketball clinic in Beijing involving 30 teenagers from Hong Kong.

"I honestly feel like coach Min would be a perfect fit because he has that discipline factor... From the way he understands how the Chinese guys operate and culture-wise I think he's a great fit," said the New York native.

"I think he can not only motivate them but he'll have their minds in the right space as far as playing with that power and with that fight.

"When you bring another foreigner who never coached in the CBA and never lived here, I think it's a lot of things going against it. Understanding all of that stuff is vital for what you are asking those guys to do on the basketball court ... you can't just come and coach them for two or three months. That's gonna be pretty hard."





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