Coast to Coast: HNC Basketball and Learning Culture through Competition

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NANJING — Xiao Yang passes to Levi Paul, posting up on the inside. Levi turns to face the basket, then lays the ball off to Zheng Taoran cutting from the wing. Taoran pump fakes once, twice, drawing two defenders, then kicks the ball out to Brennan Leong at the top of the key who throws it up from way outside. The HNC fans look on in anticipation as the ball arcs high and then *swish*. The crowd goes WILD!

With the regular season over, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center basketball team moved into the postseason with momentum, picking up a ten-point victory in the first round. Composed of both Chinese and international students, the HNC squad has become a formidable contender to win the Nanjing University Gulou Campus Basketball League. As a member of the team, I can attest to the excitement that has built up from the team’s success. However, winning is not the only goal of the HNC team.

Basketball is an activity in which Chinese and international students can find common ground. Whether watching basketball or playing basketball, the crowd at the Center is usually split evenly between Chinese and international students. Both sides, it seems, feel a strong cultural connection to the game of basketball, as a pillar of modern pop culture as well as a classic game of friendly competition. In the words of HNC forward Zheng Taoran, “basketball is borderless,” and in many ways, basketball is as naturally engrained in Chinese culture as it is in that of America.


The HNC ’16-’17 roster. Source: author


Although many Americans think of basketball as quintessentially “American,” it was introduced to China only shortly after being invented in the United States. According to an article published by the University of Pennsylvania, YMCA missionaries first introduced basketball to China in the 1890s, as a way of promoting Christian idealism abroad. From there, basketball spread among certain members of the population, particularly western-minded college students. Basketball was even the game of choice during the Communist Party’s Long March, used to foster cooperativeness and keep up the spirits of the retreating Red Army. Despite its foreign origin, basketball culture survived and even thrived during the Cultural Revolution and has since developed into a national pastime.

A major change to basketball culture in China occurred in 1987, when the NBA first began broadcasting in the country. The game rapidly changed from a community-building activity for PLA soldiers and party members to a commercialized, national phenomenon. The NBA today is estimated to have a Chinese fan base of 450 million, almost fifty percent larger than the entire population of the United States. The success of players like Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin has given the NBA an even larger surge in popularity in China. According to Bleacher Report, Yao Ming received more votes for the 2007 NBA All-Star Game then any other player, including big names like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. With such a large fan base, China has also become a leading market for NBA apparel and companies like Nike, Adidas and Li Ning have had an increasingly large role in developing the market.

Like many foreign cultural imports, however, basketball has also taken on certain Chinese characteristics in terms of how players are developed, how the game is played and how it is viewed. The development of Chinese basketball talent, at least for the professional level, is meticulously planned. Children who display potential talent are given the ability to enter government athletic academies at a young age, where their main focus is athletic development in order to achieve professional-caliber skill and athleticism. This Soviet-style “womb-to-tomb” model, according to researchers at University of Pennsylvania, is insufficient in creating a successful talent pool due to the unpredictability associated with selecting children at such a young age.

While the Chinese government estimates that around 300 million Chinese citizens play the game of basketball in some form, only a small fraction make it into the government-run development academies and even less end up playing at the professional level. This reality greatly influences the style of play for casual participants, who learn the sport mostly as a means of physical fitness and developing camaraderie.

In the United States, although these elements are certainly part of the motivation for playing the sport, many youth dream of playing at the professional level, which remains possible in the American system. In the words of HNC forward Robert Loweth, “in America, you start playing young, then you play in high school and then college and then professional. Whereas [in China], no one is really thinking about playing pro, it’s much more like a hobby.”

However, although many Chinese players are prevented from playing at the professional level, they are not discouraged from trying to play like the superstars they see on TV. Especially among the younger generations, casual basketball is used as a way to gain respect and confidence through feats of athleticism and skill. According to HNC guard Brennan Leong, “we [Americans] take sports stars and make them gods. Yet, in China, certain players are revered to an even greater extent than they are in the States.” This obsession causes players in America, but especially in China, to see the game through the eyes of their favorite players and not always through the eyes of their team.

In part, this is why the HNC basketball team has been so successful, with the combination of eastern and western basketball culture and the development of effective team dynamics. However, success did not come easy. At least in the beginning, many of the Chinese players, unfamiliar with American training and practice methods, had a difficult time adjusting to a more serious playing environment. The concept of a full court competition as opposed to half-court was similarly alien, as Chinese players are rarely given the option to play full court due to spatial reasons. Many of these problems, although nominally related to the language barrier, are more the result of basic differences in culture, especially basketball culture, between the two sides.

Nonetheless the advantages of cultural communication through this medium are abundant. For myself as well as many of my teammates, the cross-cultural relationships made through this experience are some of our closest and most genuine. “When it comes down to it, it means more than the games we played. He’s my buddy now, beyond basketball,” remarked one teammate, talking about a relationship he made through the team. Beyond the team itself, the HNC basketball team has become a rallying point for the entire HNC community, Chinese and international alike.

The HNC squad finished the regular season with a 3-1 record, enough to advance to the playoffs. The season ended with a heartbreak loss in the Gulou Campus Championship match, but they will be back for the spring season.

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