Courting attention

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Thousands of spectators watch a local basketball game at an open-air venue in Taijiang county, Southwest China's Guizhou province on Aug 2. ZHANG KUI/FOR CHINA DAILY

Still consider the CBA China's most popular basketball league? Think again.

With over 10,000 spectators roaring on their feet every night-and some even catching the action from surrounding hills-an amateur inter-village basketball tournament held last week in Southwest China's Guizhou province has become a massive viral hit online.

Netizens have been enthralled by the tourney's intoxicating atmosphere, massive participation and extreme popularity in the remote mountain village of Taipan in Guizhou's Qiandongnan Miao and Dong autonomous prefecture.

Dubbed the "Village Basketball Association", the annual outdoor tournament's raw energy contrasts with the CBA's current lack of atmosphere, with the pro league being played in empty arenas for the last two and a half years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite being on a much higher level technically and tactically, it's safe to say that the CBA nowadays pales in comparison to the grassroots tourney when it comes to fan engagement, connecting with local neighborhoods and, to some extent, social media buzz.

Organized by and played completely by locals, this year's tournament, as part of the "Gorgeous Countryside" campaign, attracted 16 teams from surrounding townships to compete first in groups and then a knockout stage from July 30-Aug 2 in Taipan village.

Players battle primarily for local bragging rights, although there are some fittingly rural prizes up for grabs too-a 650-kilogram cow for the winner, a pair of sheep for the runner-up and two piglets for the third-placed team.

With the area happily free of any pandemic risk, countless rows of spectators crowded around the open-air court-either on their feet or sitting on small camp chairs-to cheer on family members, relatives and neighbors while enjoying food and drinks they brought themselves, from the morning sessions until midnight.

During four days of hoops action, over 50 million online viewers, mostly from across the prefecture, had tuned in to watch livestreaming of the games, turning it into a phenomenal event, which has even drawn comparisons to the NBA in terms of its appeal to local communities.

"The number of spectators and the participating areas that the tournament covers have been skyrocketing every year," said Cen Jianglong, a basketball zealot from Taipan village and a co-organizer of the tournament.

"The key to its popularity is that this tournament truly belongs to local people and connects neighborhoods like no other event does. The proximity to each and every player and spectator makes it special," said Cen, who has played basketball recreationally for 20 years.

Launched across the province in 2021, the "Gorgeous Countryside" campaign that promotes development in rural China in culture, tourism and sports, has grown rapidly facilitated by the expansion and upgrade of local sports venues and exercise facilities.

Across the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong autonomous prefecture, there are nine sports stadiums and eight venues at the county-level, 43 multifunctional sports facilities built under the poverty alleviation relocation plan, and 296.8 kilometers of eco-friendly fitness trails. Across Guizhou, almost every township has a basketball court, according to Zhang Bin, an official from the sports bureau in Taijiang county.

"The development of sports facilities has laid a solid foundation for such highly popular events to go to the next level and encourage more people from the countryside to exercise more," said Zhang.

In 2018, the village-level tournament was included in the Chi Xin Festival, which celebrates harvest on the sixth of June on the lunar calendar. Since then, the annual competition has become a hub for enthusiasts not only from nearby but also for many who drive up to 200 km from Guiyang and surrounding areas to experience the unique gathering.

"I brought like everything that I need for a whole day because if I leave for food or drinks I risk not getting the same spot when I come back. So, I try to stay in the same place until the last game no matter how late it goes," said spectator Yang Tianran.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian joined in the fun, sharing a video clip of the games on Twitter accompanied by the message: "The rural basketball match in Guizhou is on! What a great atmosphere!"

Former NBA All-Star and current coach of the CBA's Beijing Royal Fighters Stephon Marbury compared the vibrancy of the tournament to New York's streetball mecca, writing on Weibo: "Can't wait to feel the atmosphere live at the 'countryside Rucker Park'."

Since April, more than 4,200 basketball games have been organized in Guizhou, thanks largely to government investment in upgrading and building new standard basketball courts.

The games are a microcosm of the local economy, as well as the improvements delivered by the national fitness campaign.

"We used to play on dirt ground, and even made our own baskets," said Wang Shenglong, a player on the Taijiang county team. "With the development of sports facilities in the countryside, we now have a standard basketball court in our village and can train better and play happier."

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