CBA reforms offer plenty of hope

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Chinese Basketball Association chairman Yao Ming celebrates a crucial score during China's 77-73 victory over South Korea during the FIBA World Cup in Guangzhou on Sept 6. [Photo/XINHUA]

In a tumultuous year for Chinese hoops, Wukesong Arena has witnessed the historic lows and, more recently, the hope-inducing highs that point to brighter days for the nation's basketball fans.

The western Beijing stadium was the scene of Team China's miserable defeats to Poland and Venezuela which precipitated the country's worst ever performance at an international event-a 24th-place finish among 32 teams which saw China lose Asia's only direct Olympic qualification berth to Iran.

These days, though, there are rarely glum faces to be seen in the Wukesong crowd as fans flock to the 18,000-seat venue to cheer on the high-flying Beijing Ducks-evidence that the wide-ranging reforms implemented by the Chinese Basketball Association in the wake of the World Cup debacle are having the desired effect.

With Team China suddenly finding itself in the same vacuous limbo as the country's perennially underachieving men's soccer squad, it was clear CBA chairman Yao Ming was determined not to let standards slip any further.

Asked after China's final World Cup game who was to blame for the host's woes, a grim-faced Yao responded: "Me! It is me and my association that disappointed the fans.

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

"However, 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."

Yao's courtside presence throughout that miserable Cup campaign was a constant reminder of just how far China had fallen. The former NBA superstar, who retired in 2011 due to a foot injury, inspired China into the last eight of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, its best international performance.

Having qualified for every Olympics since its debut at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, China now looks almost certain to miss out on Tokyo 2020. Its only remaining route to the Games in Japan is to upset the odds against a plethora of global heavyweights, such as Greece, Canada and Turkey, in a 24-team qualifying tournament in June, when only the four group winners will book their Tokyo tickets.


The gloomy short-term outlook for the national team, however, has been offset in recent months by mounting excitement in the CBA league, where attendances and online viewing figures are on the rise, to offer Yao and his colleagues renewed hope that rebuilding the game's tarnished image is achievable.

With the focus on sharpening efforts to hone domestic talent and improving the overall fan experience, the CBA introduced a series of reforms before the start of current season. These included flexibility on tip-off times to cater to broadcasting, an extension of the regular season to a lighter schedule to allow more recovery for players, and new regulations to improve officiating.

The league has hired five full-time professional referees for the first time and has introduced video replays to scrutinize the performances of refs, who are now regularly evaluated for potential wage raises or cuts.

Various other changes to league operations, which have been agreed upon but have yet to be implemented, include a salary cap for domestic players and further limiting the use of imported players starting from the 2020-21 season.

According to the plan, unanimously approved during a club owners' meeting in October, the initial cap will be 36 million yuan (around $5.2 million) for each team, but teams will be allowed a buffer of 12 million yuan, so the ceiling can be raised to 48 million yuan.

Each team can have only one foreign player on the court at any given time, down from two this season, although each franchise will be allowed to register a maximum four, up from two this year.

It's hoped capping wages and reducing clubs' reliance on foreign players' offensive capabilities can push local talent to level up their game and, in turn, bolster the national program.

"The changes we've made might not necessarily yield quick results. Instead, we should focus on consistent investment and effort over the long run to eventually make the league the top professional sports competition in our country," said Yao, China's only Basketball Hall of Famer, who was inducted in 2016.

The CBA's determination to curb the dominance of imported players on the court has been echoed by clubs, who are rethinking their policy on foreign recruitment.

Rather than focusing on signing big-name former NBA players in the twilights of their careers to sell tickets or market franchise brands, CBA clubs are now more interested in acquiring leaders in their prime, who can potentially better blend in with the culture and help local teammates develop.

The release of Kenneth Faried by the Zhejiang Lions in December after just seven appearances and the firing of Amare Stoudemire by the Fujian SBS after 11 outings-both due to declining form and poor chemistry with their Chinese teammates-underlined that CBA clubs are putting this philosophy into practice.

Still, the arrival of fan-favorite imports such as the Ducks' Asian-American guard Jeremy Lin, who inspired "Linsanity" in early 2012 with the New York Knicks, and veteran forward Lance Stephenson, who plays for the Liaoning Flying Leopards, has helped level up competition in the league and boosted its domestic and global profiles.

According to league figures, over 12 million people tuned in to watch this season's curtain-raiser between the Guangdong Southeast Tigers and the Flying Leopards, while online streaming of the game attracted 33 percent more viewers than it did for the corresponding fixture 12 months earlier.


Despite the World Cup disappointment, it wasn't all doom and gloom for China in international competition last year, with the country's 3x3 ballers delivering plenty of cheer.

Considered more of a fun pursuit than a serious competition, the 3x3 game saw its profile significantly enhanced in China after the nation's women's squad won the inaugural FIBA 3x3 World Cup, beating Hungary 19-13 in June's final in Amsterdam.

The historic triumph was the first major international basketball title won by any Chinese team.

Both China's men's and women's 3x3 national teams have qualified for the event's eight-squad Olympic debut in Tokyo directly through the FIBA rankings, which are calculated by totaling players' individual ranking points gained at FIBA-sanctioned events.

Aimed at making the Games more appealing to young people, the International Olympic Committee voted in June 2017 to add the 3x3 game to the Olympic program, starting with the Tokyo 2020 edition.

CBA's 3x3 league reached out to 300 cities across the country in the 2019 season, involving over 100,000 players in two age groups, for both men and women, before concluding with the national finals in July.

The country's 3x3 program is hopeful that the 5x5 national team's leader Yi Jianlian, who in May became the first Chinese in six years to be named CBA Finals MVP, might realize his dream of playing at a fifth Olympics by signing up for the half-court discipline.

"For us the goal is to compete for a podium finish at the Olympics to further boost the discipline's popularity in the future," said Chai Wensheng, director of the CBA's 3x3 department.

Meanwhile, China hopes to unearth more Yi Jianlians in schools via mini basketball-a miniature version of the sport aimed at children under 12 years old using lighter balls and smaller courts.

The grassroots game enjoyed increasing popularity in 2019, with 180,000 kids involved in a school program, up from 100,000 the previous year.

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