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China is searching for NBA success

Yao Ming. Photo: Di Yin/Getty Images
Yao Ming. Photo: Di Yin/Getty Images

In the NBA this past season, the MVP (Giannis Antetokounmpo) was from Greece, the most improved player (Pascal Siakam) was from Cameroon, the rookie of the year (Luka Doncic) was from Slovenia and the defensive player of the year (Rudy Gobert) was from France.

Yes, but: China — despite having the world's largest population and being home to the second-highest-paying basketball league — didn't even have a player on an NBA roster by season's end.

Driving the news: Sports Illustrated recently caught up with Yao Ming, who has been tasked with increasing Chinese basketball's global footprint.

  • He has two jobs: (1) chairman of the privatized Chinese Basketball Association, and (2) president of the state-funded basketball federation, which handles things like the national team and grassroots youth efforts.
  • "Imagine if the responsibilities of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley fell upon one person … in a country of 1.4 billion people … where no one is immune to the government's heavy hand," writes SI's Alex Prewitt.

The backdrop: Missionaries brought basketball to China less than four years after James Naismith invented it, and China was one of 21 countries to compete when basketball debuted at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

  • Given that rich history, doesn't it seem shocking that Yao remains the country's only NBA superstar? According to Prewitt, the reason might trace all the way back to authoritarian leader Mao Zedong's decision to adopt the Soviet model of development.
  • The model: "Identify children with potential athletic prowess and place them in dedicated sports schools, where they would serve the country by training from 'womb to tomb.'"
  • Its impact: "While such dedication to training might be productive in individual sports — it has worked O.K. in diving and gymnastics — it left no place for the rec leagues, school teams and AAU tournaments that have produced so many U.S. basketball stars."

To fix this problem, Yao is starting from the very bottom (distributing youth-sized basketballs throughout the country) and working his way up (three NBA-run academies have opened in China since 2016).

"I'm tired of being known. If 10 years from now we still use Yao Ming to represent China, it's a failure on my job. We need a new star to rise up. Then I can sit behind desk. This is my goal."

The bottom line: China has an estimated 300 million basketball fans and even has a fairly competitive domestic league for them to follow. But when it comes to developing talent, it's a struggle.

Go deeper: China is building a winter sports culture from scratch