Yao vows to expand reforms

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Yao Ming (right) claps with Yi Jianlian during the match against Nigeria in in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong province, on Sept 8, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

In the wake of China's dismal performance at the home World Cup, national hoops boss Yao Ming is vowing to deepen reforms to overhaul the nation's flawed basketball development.

After leading China to an eighth-place finish at the 2008 Olympics, Yao, an eight-time NBA All-Star and now chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association, is coming to grips with the real possibility that China will almost certainly snap its long streak of Olympic qualification by not competing at next year's Tokyo Games.

Overwhelmed 86-73 by a stronger and faster Nigeria in front of a raucous crowd in Guangzhou on Sunday, China finished its World Cup campaign with a 2-3 record, losing Asia's only available direct Olympic berth to Iran after its continental archrival finished 17 points higher in aggregate margin of wins.

Having qualified for every Olympics since its debut at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, China now has only a theoretical chance of making the cut for Tokyo by going up against global heavyweights in a 24-team qualifying tournament next June, where tickets for each of the six-squad group winners will be up for grabs.

Overseeing basketball in a country where Olympic success is a major factor in allocating financial support, Yao is nonetheless determined to not let the poor Cup campaign deny his efforts to reform the sport's lagging development.

Asked after the loss to Nigeria who should shoulder responsibility for China's woes, a grim-faced Yao responded, "Me!", as some outraged fans called for head coach Li Nan to step down.

"It is me and my association that disappointed the fans," said Yao, who took over the CBA in early 2017 as the association's first leader promoted from outside government ranks.

"We have been forced to open our eyes to realize how far the world has gone in front of us in basketball development," he said.

"Discouraged by the results, we should never let the disappointment shake our faith in carrying on the efforts in professionalizing the league, improving youth and coach training programs while expanding school participation," said Yao, who retired from the Houston Rockets in 2011.

His call for a more concerted effort underlines the lack of patience from the country's higher sports body that frequently implements radical changes following underachievement at major competitions, such as the FIFA World Cup for China's soccer team.

"So much should be changed - -but not the strong leadership of Yao and the blueprint he's drawn for the game's long-term development," said Su Qun, a commentator and chief editor of Basketball Pioneer newspaper.

"The probable loss of Olympic qualification has provided a clean slate for us to start over again in the right way."

Aimed at overhauling basketball's outdated State-run governance, Yao's reform measures include building a talent pipeline connecting schools to the elite system, making the domestic league more open and competitive, and enhancing the national program with tougher tests such as participation in the NBA Summer League.

As an example of the effort to expand the talent search, the fifth edition of the CBA Draft, which took place in Shanghai in July, saw a record number of six student players selected from the country's collegiate sports system.

The 20-club CBA, which will tip off its 24th season next month, has extended its season with more regular-season games and more playoff entries, while limiting the use of foreign players to offer more playing time to homegrown talent.

The league's heavy reliance on ex-NBA players was reflected at the World Cup, where no young teammates of veteran forward Yi Jianlian were able to match his contributions. As the only member of the 2008 class on Team China, the 32-year-old Yi remains its go-to guy, averaging 17.8 points, 7.8 rebounds in a team-high 27.6 minutes at the tournament.

With no major international events to play in the next four-year cycle, Yi will likely end his international career - leaving an immature squad even less competitive within Asia, facing tough rivals Iran and South Korea.

"Chinese basketball still has to move forward, but only by learning from the lessons and improving on our long-term effort can we move upward," said Yi, who spent five turbulent years with five NBA teams after being drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2007.

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