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Dwyane Wade-Endorsed Ugandan-Chinese Basketball Star Zhu Mingzhen Dreams of the NBA

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Last month, after the final episode of hit basketball reality show Dunk of China aired, I was mildly depressed: after a summer where iQIYI’s Rap of China season 2 was my preferred form of procrastination, Dunk of China quickly filled the void left when it first began airing on Youku, often dubbed China’s answer to Youtube.

Moreover, snippets of every episode were incessantly replayed in the Beijing subway, unsurprising given the unanimous praise the show received for bringing “straight men aesthetics” (直男审美 zhí nán shěnměi) into a reality TV industry that institutions like Party media agency Xinhua deemed to be polluted by so-called “girly men” (娘炮 niáng pào). Nevertheless, the number of suspenseful shots per minute in Dunk of China is so high that my morning grogginess was often alleviated by watching this fusion between a variety show and a 3×3 basketball match.

What I only found after the show was over, however, was that two of the finalists, Zhu Mingzhen and MVP Zhang Ning, were my classmates at Peking University. By “classmates” I do not mean we are chummy in any sense, but the fact that we both attend PKU meant finding them was not hard. Although the two ballers are busy every week battling China’s top university basketball squads, Zhu has kindly agreed to share with his experience in the breakout Chinese TV show with RADII.

zhu mingzhen basketball

Zhu’s Dunk of China promotional poster

Zhu is a 6ft 6, 22-year old, Beijing-bred, Ugandan-Chinese (his father is a Mandarin-speaking Ugandan diplomat; his mother a teacher). If that sounds like a mouthful, his game is even more special: he’s a power forward that can shoot the three and crossover smaller players with his smooth handles. The CBA’s recent implementation of a NBA-type draft means that Zhu can be offered a contract from a CBA team straight out of graduation. As one of the top players in Chinese university basketball, there’s a good chance Zhu will be a high first-round pick in the 2020 CBA draft.

How did you first fall in love with basketball?

The most obvious reason was because all my friends were playing it – but I was also influenced by the Japanese cartoon series, Slam Dunk [one of the best-selling Japanese mangas in history, it was serialized from 1990 to 1996 and later turned into an anime series by Toei Animation which has been broadcast worldwide, enjoying much popularity particularly in Japan, several other Asian countries and Europe]. To be honest, if you randomly ask five Dunk of China contestants what made them start playing basketball, three or four will mention Slam Dunk.

One of the most memorable plots is that of character Hisashi Mitsui (三井), a very talented player that loses love for the game after an injury, turning into a “bad boy” before having an epiphany and returning to the court, I remember thinking it was encapsulated perfectly the famous Chinese saying “a prodigal son returned home is worth more than gold” (浪子回头金不换).

zhu mingzhen cartoon dunk of china

Zhu even got his own cartoon after making the Dunk of China finals

So how did you get into Dunk of China?

In March, one of the producers somehow found my contact on the web and asked me whether I wanted to participate in this “super fresh” variety show, emphasizing that I would be playing serious, competitive basketball, not just messing about. I guess he was looking for the most well-known players in all the non-professional circles, so university, streetball, and amateur leagues. At the time, I wasn’t particularly keen on going – it seemed like a waste of time.

Also, it smelled fishy to me, I thought it might be a scam. Think about it, a stranger suddenly messages you and tells you he’s organizing a basketball variety show? Variety shows are for singing and dancing, but basketball? The fact he told me Li Yifeng and Jay Chou were going to be on made me even more suspicious. Moreover, I wanted to go workout with some professional teams this summer.

But as time went by, I started to think that the show might be a cool experience. After all, I had spent the past three summers training outside China, it was kinda boring; I felt like it was time for a break, something more fun, something most people have no way of doing.

Although I was still not sold on the idea, during the ensuing three months that dude had contacted others in the university circuit, many of whom I talked to about whether participating was worthwhile or not. When Zhang Ning said he was going, that really got me thinking.

By the beginning of June, I’d changed my mind. I signed the papers and decided to participate in this show for jokes.

How do you feel about your experience on the show now?

I think for a university student, it’s pretty cool I got to show off my skills on TV. It’s also nice to just spread some love for the beauty of basketball, after all these playing this game, I like the idea of sharing my passion with others.

Do you think Dunk of China has led to a significant increase in the number of Chinese basketball fans?

I’d say so. In the Mainland, variety shows are what the people watch most in general, everyone knows that a variety show is a much more popular form of entertainment than sports. But combining sports with the variety show, that was pretty smart.

It’s also been said that thanks to Li Yifeng and Jay Chou participating in the Dunk of China, basketball now has a lot female fans. Would you agree with this?

Yeah, some are drawn in by their idols so maybe in the beginning Li and Jay were the main reason why they watch the show but most of them gradually became interested in the basketball itself.

What was the increase in your personal Weibo fanbase as a result of your participation in the show?

It was pretty big, but nothing out of this world. Before the show I had just over 6,000 fans, now I have over 36,000. But if you look at Zhang Ning [the MVP of the show], he had 5,000 before the show, now he has over 140,000. Another finalist, Zhe Shanyao from Beijing Sports University, he only had over 1,000 before the show, now he has 350,000 — that was the biggest increase.

What was a highlight of this first season in your opinion?

Basically any of Yang Zheng’s game-winners. Even though he wasn’t on my team, I have to give him credit where it’s due.

[Yang Zheng (杨政) is one of China’s most well-known streetballers, check him out in the latest documentary made by LA-born China basketball-watcher Devin Williams at 4:23]

Was there anything about the show that you found challenging?

In the first couple of episodes, there were so many contestants and games to get through that there were days where we’d film from 9am to 2:30am, sometimes even 5am. We’d go out of the arena for makeup at 5pm, not me personally because of my dark skin [laughs], but twelve hours later we’d leave the arena again and the sky was already clear — pretty trippy.

During filming, we could lie down somewhere out of the camera’s range if we were sleepy or go backstage and eat something if we were hungry. But most of the time everyone was really energetic throughout the whole thing, even when it got really late. When Zhang Ning played 1×1 matches until 4am, everyone on the sidelines was still pretty boisterous so I guess on TV nobody could notice we were on such a crazy schedule.

Who was your favourite judge on the show?

I liked all of them, but if I had to choose a favourite it would be Jeremy Lin. You can just tell that he has a really good heart and mentality. Also, “Linsanity” [a stretch of games in 2012 where a unknown Jeremy Lin suddenly became the New York Knicks’ star player] was an inspiration to all of us Chinese basketball players.

So why did you choose Li Yifeng and Guo Ailun’s team rather than Lin and Jay Chou’s team?

Because Li Yifeng and Guo Ailun both asked me to come to their team while only Lin called me, so I just chose the team that wanted me more [laughs].

dunk of china basketball show youku

Li Yifeng and Guo Ailun’s team. Zhu Mingzhen is the second player from the left

Li Yifeng dunk of china Zhu Mingzhen

Acting idol Li Yifeng with Zhu Mingzhen

Have you had any contact with basketball overseas?

Quite a bit. Dwyane Wade gave me an MVP award when I went to his skills camp as a high schooler. Also, during my first three summers since graduating from high school, I spent at least three weeks in the US doing personal training programs with world-renowned skills coaches Tyler Relph and Damin Altizer, all paid for by Li Ning, my sponsors from my senior year of high school until the start of this year.

zhu mingzhen basketball dunk of china

Zhu with skills coach Damin Altizer this summer in Virginia, US

What do you hope to achieve in your basketball career going forward?

I just want to play better, ideally find a team in the CBA and start from there. Of course I’ve thought about the NBA, but I would say that’s more of a dream rather than a long-term goal. The CBA draft is different to the NBA draft in that just getting picked is already a blessing, because CBA teams don’t place high hopes on their draft picks like NBA teams do. The reason is that CBA teams all have their own youth teams, many of which have incredibly talented players that we don’t compete against because they just don’t attend university.

Cover Photo: Osports Media

Eduardo Baptista
    Eduardo Baptista is a Portuguese-Korean journalist based in Beijing. His writing has appeared on The World of Chinese, RADII, and the CCTV website, with a focus on sports and culture.

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