China Sucks at Basketball: What Does That Tell Us?

China basketball: Where is the Joy?

I am convinced I can understand about 50% of a country by going into five of its grocery stores and by watching five basketball games of its best players. I have a friend who is a dancer and she says she can understand a country by watching its people dance. I’m guessing piano players would say the same thing about piano players. I realize this is massive generalizing, but. . . .

So I watched the U.S.-China Olympic basketball game last night and waited a day to write this, so as to calm down a bit. But before I talk basketball, let me first talk soccer, a sport I do not know well.

Many years ago, a friend living in China  emailed me the link to an Economist Magazine article, entitled, Why China Fails at Football, along with a note saying the following:

China is never going to get its act together in football and for the same reasons, it’s never going to get its act together in the big picture either. They play football like they do everything else. Selfishly and by rote. That works fine for factory work, but when it comes to innovation, it’s worthless.

The Economist article also did not shy away from using soccer as a metaphor for China as a whole:

Solving the riddle of why Chinese football is so awful becomes, then, a subversive inquiry. It involves unravelling much of what might be wrong with China and its politics. Every Chinese citizen who cares about football participates in this subversion, each with some theory—blaming the schools, the scarcity of pitches, the state’s emphasis on individual over team sport, its ruthless treatment of athletes, the one-child policy, bribery and the corrosive influence of gambling. Most lead back to the same conclusion: the root cause is the system.

It saw the soccer problem as stemming from a top-down system that is good for individual sports, but not team sports:

So whatever ails Chinese football, it is not a lack of passion from the country’s leaders. If anything, the opposite may be the problem. China’s Party-controlled, top-down approach to sport has yielded some magnificent results in individual sports, helping China win more Olympic gold medals in Beijing in 2008 than any other country. But this “Soviet model” has proven catastrophically unsuitable for assembling a team of 11 football players, much less a nation of them.

Modern Lei Feng (an expat who has lived in China for as long as I can remember) wrote his own “China sucks at soccer, what does that mean” article many years ago, entitled, Whither Chinese Soccer? [link no longer exists]. In this post, MLF also speculates on why China is unable to field a world class soccer team and he attributes China’s soccer shortcomings to six things, including the following two:

The Education System. “The dog eat dog nature of the Chinese education system is unbelievable. From a young age, kids must go from the “right” elementary school to the “right” junior high to the “right” high school if they have a prayer of getting into the “right” college. The concept of “playtime” doesn’t exist for most kids, they get out of school (later than in most places in the world) and then go home to study or to an after school program. They don’t have time to kick a ball around and their parents would be unhappy if they caught them using their time in such a frivolous manner. There are no grass roots weekend youth soccer programs like you find in the US, but even in the few that do exist, expat kids are in the majority. Among some in the middle/upper class in China, who’ve been educated and/or spent a lot of time abroad, there is a growing looseness and allowing their kids more time to be kids, but they often will only choose a single activity and those tend to be something along the lines of golf or hockey, a more “exotic” sport that makes their kid unique among his peers. The large size of China’s population, the reason why so many people think it should be so easy to find 11 decent soccer players, also hurts it, with so many young people competing for a finite number of university spots, an hour or two kicking a ball around is seen as a waste of time.”

Soccer Can’t Be Taught. ‘The sports China excels in, ping pong, badminton, diving, weightlifting, etc., are all sports that are focused on a repetitive motion. Practicing the same motions 1,000 times a day, day in day out will perfect your skills and lead to success. Soccer doesn’t work that way, it isn’t possible to “teach” the game in the same way. Players need to be creative, anticipating not only what the opponent will do but what their teammates will do, and everyone needs to work together as a team, not just 11 individuals. In China, more often than not, the team’s play a rigid form of soccer, lacking the creativity and the flair you see elsewhere in the world, and when players display that flair, it often fails because teammates don’t expect it. Young Chinese talent needs to go overseas to train and play against other people, to build up that mental database of different ways to play and different systems.”

During the last Olympics, in China Soccer as China Business Metaphor [link no longer exists], I wrote on why China has no good basketball point guards:

But I feel compelled to discuss one thing I have noticed in watching the Olympics and that is that China’s basketball team does not have a single point guard worth a damn and I have to wonder why.

Is it further evidence of the shortcomings of a planned economy? Does China pull out the great athletes for other sports, leaving only tall people for basketball?

Is it further evidence of a lack of innovation or take-chargedness (I know I am making up this word, but it works) in China? Great point guards have to be willing to innovate and take the heat. Is the coaching so tough that no player is willing to step up?

The Heart of Beijing blogger has wondered the same thing, citing this line from an AP story: “China has more than a billion people, but there’s not an elite point guard among them.”

But after watching China’s basketball team last night, I feel as though all of the above is too kind. If I were the coach of that team, I would thank Yi Jianlian and then I would quit. Right in the middle of the Olympics. I mean, why even bother trying when your players are so bad, so clueless, so passive, and so un-caring. Now I know this was just one game, but I can tell you if Bobby Knight had been coaching them, he would, at minimum, have screamed at them for at least five hours after the game.

Let me get the good things out of the way first and then talk about the rest. Yi Jianlian scored around 25 points and he hustled and he looked like a player out there. I attribute this to his having played in the NBA for 4-5 years before washing out as just another mediocre 7-footer. And yes, people, this is clearly the best basketball China has to offer.

Now on to the rest.

I remember watching Women’s professional basketball maybe 30 years ago and thinking that with only two or three exceptions, the players — though tremendous athletes and tough as nails — looked like volleyball players playing basketball. They did not look as though they had grown up as basketball junkies, hooping a minimum of three hours every single day. They lacked that sort of flow.

Fast forward to 2004, when my eldest daughter started playing high school varsity basketball with Roosevelt High School in Seattle, which was back then a basketball powerhouse (this link is to a trailer for an  award winning documentary on that team — China’s team would do well to try to emulate the hustle seen in just these three minutes). By that time, almost all high schoolers — female and male — looked like they had been playing basketball their whole lives.

Not so of the China players, most of whom look like they learned how to play not by playing so much but by having studied or been taught how to play. No passion. No individuality. No love for the game. No second sense for the game. No toughness. No intensity. Nobody who steps up. No discernible talent. Take away Yi Jianlian and I would swear a mid-level Pac-12 team would whoop the China team but good. Who coaches these guys?

Bad defense. Bad offense. This team had the unique ability to both lack any cohesion as a team and yet not really have any one player with the willingness to step into the breach. They played like a high school team early on in a season, before its identity and its player roles have gelled. Just a complete mess. And I have little doubt the China team will play this way every game. I also watched the Serbia-Venezuela game and I am confident Serbia would crush China and I would be rooting for Venezuela, which though low on talent and experience, is much higher on enthusiasm and hustle and guts than the China. With a pool of 1.4 billion people, surely we should expect better.

So why is China so mediocre in team sports like basketball and soccer and what significance, if any, does this have in terms of innovation and business in China? Does China run its factories like this? Does China run its tech companies like this? I actually don’t think so, as I am more and more running up against great China manufacturers and great China tech companies, but would I use the word great to describe them if I knew manufacturing or tech operations as well as I know basketball?

Remember though that I started this post by saying that my understanding of a country comes from both basketball and its grocery stores. China food is amazing, diverse, both creative and traditional, and it is made with real love and passion and dedication and even toughness. Food is a true part of China. Basketball in China is still mostly just an appendage coming from the top down. China’s youth love the NBA so perhaps its next generation of players will be different. Perhaps someday, its basketball will match its food.

See also China Sucks at Soccer: What Does That Tell Us?

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