I had imagined CCTV as a hyperefficient media factory, a soulless hive, where technicians busily produced acceptable programming for the world's largest authoritarian country. This felt like a college RTVMP studio. Everyone was young and hip and a little bored, twiddling outdated control boards and staring blankly at screens as they prepared for the Wednesday night Game of the Week: the Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons against the Bayi Rockets, the team of the People's Liberation Army, the most famous team in China.
I was spending the season with the Brave Dragons, the perennial doormat of the Chinese Basketball Association, whose steel-baron owner was making a spectacularly naked attempt at buying a winning season. The owner was obsessed with the NBA, and having watched Kobe and LeBron on CCTV, he thought he could teach his team to play like the Americans on television by hiring the Americans on television. He wanted a technology transfer.
He brought in a former NBA coach, Bob Weiss, and a few foreign ringers (Bonzi Wells would soon arrive) in an experiment about how well, or not, Americans and Chinese could be blended together on the court. CCTV had taken notice; this would be the Brave Dragons' first appearance on national television. The Bayi Rockets were television regulars. Like CCTV, they were part of the state machinery, and had won the first six CBA championships. One of the studio techs told me the Bayi Rockets were the Chinese equivalent of the Celtics, even if the Celtics didn't have any nukes or anti-ballistic missiles.
I took a seat and stared at the bank of television screens. The game was on a live feed from Ningbo, the hometown of the Rockets, and I could see the players finishing warm-ups. Or I assumed it was a live feed. On another screen the starters were somehow already at midcourt, waiting for the opening tip. The present seemed lost between the past and the future. The studio tech smiled and explained that every game was broadcast with a short time delay. And the game's announcers were not in Ningbo, either. They were in the next room, on a soundstage, hundreds of miles from the court, calling the action in detached tones as they watched the live feed on a flat-screen television.
The tech didn't seem to think the setup was unusual or that it diluted the excitement, probably because the whole arrangement was intended to dilute excitement. If much of the drama of basketball is rooted in the unknown, in the thrilling uncertainty about what may or may not happen next, CCTV had constructed a defense mechanism against some of those unknown thrills. They wanted to protect against the odd chance, as sometimes happens, that something embarrassing might occur, that someone might wave a protest banner, or, worst case, that all hell might break loose.
In August, almost three years after my visit to CCTV, all hell unexpectedly broke loose. The Georgetown Hoyas found themselves in the parallel basketball universe that is China, playing an exhibition game against the Bayi Rockets. It was an ugly game that begat an uglier brawl that quickly became an international incident after a fan video went viral on YouTube. Images ricocheted around the world of players kicking, punching, and (in the case of the Rockets) even tossing chairs, as the fight became a metaphor for the testy rivalry between the United States and China.
One place where the fight was not replayed on television was China. CCTV didn't broadcast the game or show replays or discuss the fact that the country's signature team had gotten into an alley fight with some college kids from America. Censors tried to block Internet access to the video, but few people are more determined than the Chinese hacker, and plenty of people wiggled around the Great Firewall for a glimpse of the fight. Mostly, they thought it was a joke, an embarrassment, though for some Chinese hoops fans, the fight was more proof of the irreversible decline of the Bayi Rockets.
You might think the fading glory and public disgrace of a fabled team would be a sad occasion for Chinese basketball, but if the Bayi Rockets are the country's most popular team, they are the most hated, too. At least among many players, coaches, and front-office execs in the Chinese league. Hating Bayi is sort of like hating the Yankees, Celtics, and Cowboys, if they were all rolled into the same hate sandwich. Resentment is the best explanation, since a good many other teams are absolutely convinced that the system is rigged in Bayi's favor. They certainly wouldn't have been surprised at what happened with the refs against Georgetown: In a physical game, the refs called 38 fouls against the Hoyas and only 16 against Bayi. Georgetown shot 15 foul shots. Bayi shot 57.
During my night at the CCTV studio, I watched my team, the Shanxi Brave Dragons, make a wild comeback and take the lead late in the fourth quarter, until the refs sent the Rockets' best foul shooter to the line three times in the final minute. Watching on the nonlive feed, I couldn't be absolutely certain the refs were cheating, but the Brave Dragons didn't have any doubts. Later, the owner was irate, certain that the fix was in, that the fix was always in whenever Bayi was on the court. No one could prove anything, of course, but it was widely believed that conspiracies were at work and that they were all working for Bayi. I heard it more than once: When Bayi needed help, a PLA general would make a call. Anti-Bayi sentiment was so deep that rumors began to circulate of counter conspiracies in which other teams were colluding, deliberately throwing key games, just to try to keep Bayi out of the playoffs. I never knew if any of it was true, or not true, which is often the state of play in China.
For decades, the Bayi Rockets didn't need many favors, since they rarely lost. The team was birthed as a boutique project of the Red Army. After he founded Communist China in 1949, Mao Zedong abolished "colonial" sports as bourgeois affectations, with the exception of basketball. Mao liked hoops. Basketball had arrived with YMCA missionaries but would later be adopted by Mao's generals. They organized games to improve morale, and soon a basketball hierarchy was created, with teams representing different levels of the military, a pyramid pointing upward with Bayi at the top. Even the name chosen for the team signaled its importance: Translated into English, Bayi means "August First," the day the People's Liberation Army was founded.
One reason the Rockets kept winning was that no one else could really compete with them, at least as far as attracting talent. Most teams could recruit only from their surrounding areas. Bayi could pluck anyone from anywhere in China, and anyone would have been reluctant to resist, since playing for Bayi meant doing your patriotic duty. In the 1960s and 1970s, when China was careening between famine and political madness, joining the army was also a guarantee that you would be fed. Playing for Bayi meant you would be fed pretty well. By the 1980s and 1990s, after China had started to get richer, Bayi was offering better perks; star players were given high military ranks (even though none did any real military service), as well as cars and expensive clothes.
Bayi was a Chinese dynasty, and like every other dynasty, it didn't see change coming. In 1995, the CBA was founded as the country's first commercial basketball league, and commercialism was supposed to make Chinese hoops more like the NBA, more like us. Bayi had stood atop a system that was the antithesis of us: The old Chinese league was made up of different military or police teams, or teams sponsored by provincial sports bureaus. Commercialism would gradually bring change: Police and military teams were phased out, partly to placate Western advertisers who couldn't have been eager to sponsor a league of police teams in a police state. New teams came into the league, often owned by private businessmen, who were part of China's first generation of superrich. They bought these teams as toys or promotional vehicles. One Chinese tycoon bought a team to advertise his zipper company.
Eventually, Bayi was the only military team left in the league. It kept winning, at first, taking those six consecutive league titles, until 2002, when it lost in the finals against the Shanghai Sharks, who had a center named Yao Ming. Yao's rival was Bayi's star center, Wang Zhizhi, who would precede Yao in the NBA (after a tense negotiation with China's military brass), only to return to Bayi a few years later. Had Yao stuck around, the Sharks would have been the new dynasty, but even after he left for the NBA, Bayi could not regain its dominance. Two reasons: Even if Chinese basketball is mediocre at best, China has few rivals in its determination to improve by learning (some might say stealing) from others. From its outset, the CBA had allowed teams to import two foreign players, including retreads from the NBA, as a way to expose Chinese players to better competition. The exception was Bayi, which remained all-Chinese. It would have been embarrassing for the army team to import foreign mercenaries. Yet as better foreigners began arriving, Bayi began to struggle, which was more embarrassing. The league tried to give it special protection: Any team playing Bayi had to limit the playing time for foreign stars. This kept Bayi respectable, but dented its mystique. It was sort of like the PLA setting out special ground rules before waging war.
More significant, though, was improving Chinese competition. Private teams began sending scouts across China to compete with Bayi for talent, offering money and the promise of better coaching. Hitching up in the army was no longer as appealing for a generation of kids reared on the NBA. Power quickly shifted to China's southern coast, where the privately owned Guangdong Southern Tigers have become the league's new dynasty, winning seven of the past eight league titles. Playing for the Southern Tigers brings uniquely American perks — almost every player has a shoe contract. Nike has had an endorsement deal with the team itself. The Southern Tigers produced Yi Jianlian, whose NBA career admittedly has been spotty at best, and the team now has China's best roster of young talent. When I mentioned Bayi to the Southern Tigers' general manager, he grinned. He didn't consider them competition anymore.
The ironic thing is that the Georgetown brawl might help push Bayi into extinction. In recent years there has been speculation that the PLA might be losing interest in a team that now struggles to make the playoffs. Wang Zhizhi (who didn't play against Georgetown) is nearing retirement, and once he quits, the team's fate will be even more uncertain. Bayi used to be a reliable propaganda property; during my visit to CCTV, the studio crew peppered commercial breaks with special promos for Bayi players. But the Georgetown brawl was nothing to be proud of. On the Internet, Chinese fans blamed the Bayi team for lacking discipline, for being bad hosts, for not acting like professionals. Not even CCTV could hide that.
Jim Yardley has covered China and India for the past eight years for The New York Times. His book, Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, An American Coach and Two Cultures Clashing, will be published in February 2012 by Knopf. You can follow him on Twitter: @JimBYardley.
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