Build the game from the bottom up

Updated: 2013-04-19 08:44

By Tym Glaser (China Daily)

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You can't build a skyscraper from the penthouse down.

I'm no architect, engineer or scientist, but my basic understanding of the laws of physics leads me to believe that's kind of impossible.

Still, that's what the Chinese Basketball Association's premier league and, by natural extension, basketball in China is trying to achieve.

Make no mistake, the CBA has surpassed soccer's Chinese Super League as the No 1 competition in the land, but also be aware this was due to more good luck than good management.

While the CSL's wheels first wobbled and then started to fall off in the face of numerous corruption scandals, the CBA gained traction through wealthy owners and a continually growing influx of foreign (read: US) stars.

Big names like Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas have drawn sellout crowds of fans in all their thunder-stick thumping zeal through the turnstiles like never before.

Some of the expats, like Marbury, have embraced China and its culture and have also willingly passed on their experience to their homegrown teammates. That attitude saw Marbury and his tastily-named Beijing Ducks team win their first CBA championship in 2011-12.

The last China-born player to run up and down an NBA court, Yi Jianlian, had a similar impact when he returned to the Guangdong Southern Tigers and guided that side to this season's title.

However, behind each championship team are 16 losing ones in the CBA.

McGrady, the biggest star to grace the league to date, joined the Qingdao Eagles amid great fanfare and a Beatles'-like welcome. He finished his debut season with more than respectable stats of 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game, and the mighty Eagles finished dead last in the 17-team competition.

Paying for over-priced, fading stars is no way to build a team, nor ultimately sustain a league. Just ask the CSL and, in particular, Shanghai Shenhua.

Guangdong, through the good fortune of having a bona-fide local star in Yi, and some recruiting and structural sense, must be doing something right as it has won eight of the past 10 championships.

The Dongguan Leopards have adopted a more holistic approach to their team's - and the game's - development by creating, with the help of the NBA, a basketball academy. However, the Southern Tigers and Leopards are special breeds of cat and by no means the norm.

By and large, the CBA and its sides are riding on sponsorship and TV rights fees, but this will not be a sustainable model if, or most likely when, the fans finally get tired of seeing NBA retreads prop up a league of diminishing local talent.

The NBA is a partner of the CBA and is actively promoting growth of the game in China. It is also looking to cash in on a huge, largely untapped merchandising market.

Finding the next Yao Ming would be great for all and sundry, but an extra dozen or so NBA stores around the land wouldn't hurt David Stern and Co if an athletic 2.29 meter behemoth failed to emerge from a subway near you.

The NBA, under the canny guidance of Commissioner Stern, is primarily interested in the marketing of its product and products in China. Sure, the league holds the China Games annually between two NBA teams in preseason mode, but any thoughts fans here harbor of actually seeing an NBA game or even an NBA All-Star Weekend in China are dreaming. The logistics, time constraints and time difference (12 hours between the US East Coast and Beijing) make any such venture unfeasible - even for the rotundly wealthy NBA.

That league is also not going to prop up the CBA, nor would the appearance of another Yao.

The responsibility for sustained success lies in the hands of the league's administrators, but the onus is on the club owners.

The national team is a shambles at the moment and failed to record a win at last year's London Olympics. Meanwhile, millions of children are shooting hoops each day - even in the cold dead of winter.

Instead of leasing the skills of NBA players whose use-by dates are done or never were, wouldn't it be better to spend that cash on local school programs or competitions from which the most talented can be ushered into youth club teams and ultimately the seniors?

Wouldn't it be better to pay for expert coaches to guide those youngsters forward and, hopefully, ultimately into a strong national setup?

That, to me, seems like the way to build a skyscraper.

The author is senior sports copy editor at China Daily. He can be contacted at

(China Daily 04/19/2013 page7)