Wed, Jul 20, 2011 - Page 19 News List

Yao’s retirement forces China to rethink strategy

NY Times News Service, BEIJING

Houston Rockets All-Star Yao Ming takes a free throw during their match against the New Jersey Nets in the NBA China Games match in Beijing on Oct. 13 last year.

Photo: AFP

Nine seasons after Yao Ming walked onto a basketball court in Texas and inspired a generation of young Chinese to learn to dribble — or at least to watch until the final buzzer — his looming exit from professional basketball is triggering nostalgia for the man who became a national hero and frustration over why no one in China, which has tens of millions of basketball players, appears capable of replacing him as an NBA star.

For nearly a decade, China has been enthralled by the cult of Yao spun by Communist Party propagandists and corporate sponsors: the winner, the gentle giant, the favorite son. His image was ubiquitous in China and the public basked in his glow even as other Chinese players in the NBA sputtered.

Yet his retirement is forcing many Chinese to acknowledge that their country has relied on Yao alone for victory and national pride, ignoring shortcomings in the state sport system that leaves China facing a future bereft of NBA and Olympic basketball glory.

“We can either choose to blame the gods and whine about our misfortune or we can step up to the plate and train the next generation of basketball talent,” Zhang Weiping, a basketball commentator and former national team member, wrote in an editorial last week.

Yi Jianlian, whom Time magazine once predicted would be the next Yao, is now an unrestricted free agent after being dropped by the Washington Wizards. Sun Yue, the only Chinese national to play point guard in the NBA, was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, but played 10 games, averaging a mere 0.6 points, before his demotion to the Development League after one season. He has since -returned to the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).

China, Zhang wrote in Basketball Pioneers magazine, must hone smaller, faster and more skilled players like those who thrive in the West.

“China has no shortage of this kind of talent,” he said. “We simply have coaching and systemic problems that prevent us from discovering and developing these players.”

While the US develops players through an almost Darwinian process of natural selection in youth leagues, high school teams and colleges, China has a rigid Soviet-inspired state network of athletic schools, coaches and bureaucrats that selects players as early as age four.

Yao, the son of exceptionally tall basketball players, was a 1.7m third grader when he was picked by a local sports school for a life of endless drills geared entirely toward molding him into Olympic material. Every professional Chinese player has a similar body and biography, and yet, before and during the 30-year-old Yao’s reign, China has managed to reach the Olympic quarter-finals only four times.

The state recruiting strategy is rife with problems. Officials choose children from across the country based solely on how tall they are.

“If height were the determining factor, we would be the best team in the world,” said Li Nan, 32, who works for a Beijing advertising agency and plays basketball in his free time, noting that every member of the national team is 2.1m or taller.

However, youth and height, as any NBA fan knows, do not alone predict victory on the court.

“At age 10, you can’t identify the next Allen Iverson,” Bob Donewald, the American coach of China’s national team, said in a telephone interview.

Nor the next Derrick Rose, the NBA’s most valuable player last season, who stands 1.9m.

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