By sportswriters Zheng Zhi, Wang Haoyu, Lin Deren
On the evening of September 1, 2018, Yao Ming outstretched his long arms, sitting in front of dozens of people on the basketball court of a stadium in Jakarta, with a big, iconic smile on his face.
The people standing behind him consisted of four Chinese national teams that had just won all four basketball gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games, across the 5x5 and newly introduced 3x3 competitions for both men and women. The night represented a watershed moment for Chinese basketball; a milestone on the road to "Make the Ordinary Extraordinary", an inspirational slogan unveiled by the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) in November.
2018 was truly a historic year for Chinese basketball, with the national teams' Asian Games clean sweep described as "historical" by Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA.
At the previous Asian Games four years ago in Incheon, South Korea, China failed to win gold in either the men's or women's basketball event, with neither side advancing to the semifinals.
This time, the team sat at the top of Asian men's basketball goes by the name "Team Red". Under a newly introduced system, China's national basketball team has split into two teams - Team Red and Team Blue, led by Li Nan and Du Feng respectively - playing in different international competitions before they merge in 2019 in preparation for the 2019 FIBA World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
In February, 2017, Yao Ming became the first ever CBA president not to have held political office. The dual national teams system came into being as part of a new CBA reform that has proven productive after its "mid-term exam" at the Asian Games. Two teams gives twice the opportunity for young players to show their talents on the world stage, even though some of them would not have dared to imagine themselves wearing the national team jersey before. But one year later, Chinese supporters have been thrilled by the energy from Abudushalamu's rebounds, the three-pointers of Wu Qian, or Zhou Qi's iconic slamdunk over Iranian center Hamed Haddadi in the Asian Games final.
"The reform brought young players more opportunities and allowed us to see their potential. In those key matches of high intensity and pressure, their performances far exceeded our expectations." said Li Nan, coach of both Team Red and the soon-to-be combined team which will compete at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
The women's 5x5 team emerged victorious in both the Asian Games and the Women's World Cup, defeating arch enemy Japan twice. With an average age of 24, they demonstrated vitality, courage and determination, while at the same time gaining experience and confidence. According to their head coach Xu Limin, "if the full score is 100, 120 points should be given to the girls."
The other two gold medals came from men's and women's 3x3 competitions, new to both the Asian Games and the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
After Yao took in charge, the CBA league began to operate independently, starting a five-year plan of reform. In the 24th CBA season, the number of rounds in the regular season has increased from 38 to 46, which means there are 460 games in total. "Watching CBA every night" has become a life habit for many fans, and the increased exposure means the league's brand value, and that of the sponsors, has been magnified.
According to the CBA company, there were nine extra-time matches and 37 matches with a score difference of less than five points in the first 149 matches of the new season. The increase in the number of games and their growing intensity has forced teams to send more young players to play, meaning youth training has become an important new focus. At the same time, the number of playoff teams has increased from 10 to 12, with teams ranking from 5-12 playing additional matches for a final eight berth in the playoffs, which means more dividends from the league, sponsors' input, fans' sense of belonging, and a greater incentive for the long-term development of the clubs.
The CBA company is continuing to explore ways of improving the accuracy of referees, the promotion of technical methods and the cultivation of the league's culture. Brand new logos have been designed for each club, while the seven teams to have won CBA championships will receive exclusive championship jerseys and newly-designed championship rings, designed to improve the sense of belonging and honor for all groups participating in the league.
"I hope that after ten years, Chinese basketball teams at the top level, both men and women, can surpass the achievements created by their predecessors. At the grassroots level, all our fans will have their own domestic home teams, whether they are professional teams, university teams or even community basketball teams," said Yao Ming, whose comments are especially pertinent given the success of China's 3x3 teams at the Asian Games.
More important than the gold medals themselves is the fact that both men and women's 3x3 national team members represent the grassroots that Yao spoke of. They were selected from 33,000 amateur players across 8,500 teams in a competition called "I Want to Play at the Olympic Games".
China's basketball fans in both rural and urban areas can now see a path from the grassroots level straight to the national team, thanks to the tournament created by the CBA. In 2018, China's basketball 3x3 national teams consisted solely of amateur players participating in six international tournaments, including the Asian Games and the World Cup. Early this year, 17-year-old Wang Yunzhang was still practicing shooting on the court of Mianyang Middle School in Sichuan Province. But by the autumn, he had stepped on the stage under the famous obelisk in Buenos Aires, Argentina, holding China's national flag in his hand as the delegation's flag bearer at the Youth Olympic Games.
There is an even bigger group that has laid the foundation of basketball's future in China. In 2018, the CBA spared no effort in promoting mini-basketball, a new match system using smaller-sized basketballs for children. The league is in full swing, and the training of coaches, as well as implementation of technical standards, weekend training camps and big data are also being carried out. Since March 2018, the Mini Basketball League has entered more than 100 cities and attracted 100,000 players and 9,700 coaches from 15,000 teams.
Yao firmly believes that the growth of youth basketball can help enrich children's lives. "We will continue to discuss ways in which we can merge sports and education, as they both play important roles in helping people grow up."
Basketball in China acts as a bridge between the present and the future, and also links the ordinary and the extraordinary. In terms of people's personal growth, basketball is also playing a role of growing importance, with the national teams' successes providing inspiration to ordinary people on many different levels.
In a video published by the CBA on its Weibo account, one heartwarming story is the tale of "the Wipe Guy", a caddie who impressed every stadium with his enthusiasm, or grandma Hong Nanli, the octogenarian who still enjoys recording basketball matches with her camera.
The ideas put forward by Yao when he was elected CBA president in 2017 are now being implemented one by one, and 2018 will long be remembered in the history of Chinese basketball. Under the background of reform, basketball has gone far beyond the scope of pure competition.
The reform of both the national team and CBA will secure the long-term growth of basketball in China, the mini basketball project serves an educational role for young people, and the national fitness campaign is benefiting from 3x3 basketball. The idea to "Make the Ordinary Extraordinary" has extended itself to a broader field, transforming a growing number of people's lives, and helping them bring out the best in themselves.
"Not everyone can achieve greatness, but the greatness must come from every corner." Yao noted.