Why The Chinese Aren’t Good At Basketball
July 19, 2011, 05:00 AM
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With the retirement of 7?6? Yao Ming from the NBA, the Chinese are wondering why there aren’t many other world-class Chinese basketball players. From the NYT:

While the United States develops players through an almost Darwinian process of natural selection in youth leagues, high school teams and colleges, China has a rigid, Soviet-inspired state network of athletic schools, coaches and bureaucrats that selects players as early as age 4.

Yao, the son of exceptionally tall basketball players,

Yao was, more or less, the result of a successful government breeding experiment at creating a basketball player. His 6?-7? father on the Chinese men’s basketball team and 6?-3? mother on the Chinese women’s basketball team were repeatedly encouraged to get together by Chinese basketball officials.

was a 5-foot-7 third grader when he was plucked by a local sports school for a life of endless drills geared entirely toward molding him into Olympic material. Every professional Chinese player has a similar body and biography. And yet, before and during the 30-year-old Yao’s reign, China has managed to reach only the Olympic quarterfinals.

The Chinese government likes to win a lot of different Olympic medals, so they don’t invest hugely in winning an expensive basketball medal.

The state recruiting strategy is rife with problems. Officials choose children from across the country based solely on how tall they are. “If height were the determining factor, we would be the best team in the world,” said Li Nan, 32, who works for a Beijing advertising agency and plays basketball in his free time, noting that every member of the national team is 6-9 or taller.

That’s tall! Way too tall for a good team, in fact. It would be interesting to see how much average height in China has gone up over the last 40 years.

But youth and height, as any N.B.A. fan knows, do not alone predict victory on the court.

“At age 10, you can’t identify the next Allen Iverson,” Bob Donewald Jr., the American coach of China’s national team, said in a phone interview. Nor the next Derrick Rose, the N.B.A.’s most valuable player last season, who stands 6-3.

No, I think this is more backwards. You can identify quickness very early, but it’s a crapshoot how tall a quick 10-year-old will grow. For example, point guard Sebastian Telfair was rated the top 4th grader in the country and went on to be a high school star and an NBA lottery pick straight out of high school and be handed $18 million by a shoe company. But as his 6?2? NBA star cousin Stephon Marbury unkindly pointed out at the peak of Telfairmania in 2004, Telfair stopped growing at 5?-11? and couldn’t dunk. So, Telfair has been at best a journeyman in the NBA.

To be an outstanding NBA guard, it’s helpful to not be particularly tall when you are young so that you don’t coast on the advantages of your height; but then keep growing. The American system just chews up and spits out a vast number of boys who were good young guards, but who never reach NBA height.

“What’s amazing is that in a country of 1.3 billion I can’t find a point guard,” he said.

A case in point is Shanghai, population 22 million, which picks a maximum of 30 people for its club team. “If you’re not selected, there is no coaching, no practices and no training,” Donewald said. “China is filtering through guys and cutting them off so early there’s no way for them to get better.” …

Those who do play on public courts are in their 20s or older, Donewald said, reflecting society’s traditionally single-minded focus on education. That means most children spend their days and nights studying for tests, not playing pick-up games in the park or practicing in after-school programs.

So, the reason the Chinese aren’t very good at basketball is because they are too busy studying for their math tests.