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Underdogs, Upsets, and Jeremy Lin: Youku’s Basketball Reality Show “Dunk of China” Looks Set to be a Hit

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As we get into the final stages of iQIYI’s hit show Rap of China, Youku has entered the reality TV/talent contest fray with a new show that taps into one of China’s most beloved pastimes: basketball.

Dunk of China (这就是灌篮 Zhe jiushi guanlan; literally “This is Slam Dunk”) released its first episode on Saturday 25 August, notching over 51 million views in the space of four days, unsurprising given the estimated 300 million practitioners of the sport in the country. Although televised 1v1 and 3v3 competitions are nothing new in China, Dunk of China marks the first time basketball has been placed into a reality show format, with sponsorships from multi-national brands like Head & Shoulders bringing the familiar trait of constant product placement.

A poster advertising Dunk of China (image courtesy Sohu)

There is much that suggests this show has the potential to become a staple of Chinese TV. Firstly, the judging panel is loaded with star power and basketball chops.

Dunk of China judges (from left to right): Jeremy Lin, Jay Chou, Li Yifeng, Guo Ailun (image courtesy Youku)

There’s Brooklyn Nets’ Jeremy Lin, still rocking the controversial dreadlocks, and CBA star Guo Ailun, who last year was the first Chinese player ever to be signed by Jordan Brand. Next to these giants stand 1.81m actor Li Yifeng, one of China’s sida liuliang (四大流量), or four most influential actors, and 1.73m Jay Chou, whose music has exerted a dominant influence in the Chinese-speaking world for the past two decades.

While Li Yifeng’s connection to basketball is rather tenuous, Jay Chou’s leading role in the 2008 Chinese language action-comedy film Kung Fu Dunk (大灌篮), where he plays an orphaned kung fu student who becomes a basketball prodigy with a 400-inch vertical and the ability to shoot full-court jumpers, is more than enough to prove his hoop credentials.

Jay Chou’s character Fan Shijie displaying super-human leaping abilities in the film Kung Fu Dunk (image courtesy mtime)

The first episode split the judging panel into two teams, Guo and Li on one, Jay and Lin on the other. Guo and Li instantly bonded, cracking jokes about Guo’s ability to speak northeastern dialect (his CBA team is from Liaoning Province, in that part of the country), and even playing 1×1 during a break. Because of Lin’s limited Mandarin, he mainly just laughs at the antics of Zhou, who uses sarcasm and self-mockery at every possible opportunity, offering stories about his high school basketball career, in which he spent three years on the bench without ever playing a single minute.

Both teams watched 60 contestants battle each other in 1×1 and 3×3 tournaments, picking players to join their teams by offering them a basketball jersey.

Jay Chou playing against an anime-type figure in the promotional video for Dunk of China (image courtesy of Soho)

The show has a futuristic and progressive feel to it. The promotional video (watch below) features the judges playing against anime-type figures; the arena’s gigantic size and holographic lights take one back to the Tune Stadium in 1996’s Space Jam, where Michael Jordan teams up with Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters; all four referees are women.

Some of the rules are also pretty quirky — if a contestant wants to play in the next round of 1×1, he must sprint towards a basketball in the middle of the court, and be the first to pick up the ball, a Dodgeball-reminiscent safety hazard but entertaining nonetheless. The player must then see who is willing to challenge him, and choose according to his wishes: a weak player for an easy entry into the next round, a strong player for an entertaining match, or if there is a personal vendetta that needs to be resolved.

Most importantly, the show is exciting to watch, with five minute 1×1 matches and ten minute 3×3 matches, making all games pretty fast-paced and unpredictable. Players sit around the court watching the 1×1 and 3×3 battles, their loud cheering creating a gladiator-like atmosphere that seems to incite testosterone-induced trash-talking from those playing.

Well-known 1×1 champion Zhou Rui (周锐) responds to his opponent’s praise by saying he’ll wait until he “kills” him before exchanging pleasantries; Shanghai OG streetballer Hotdog blocks his opponent’s shot and wags his finger á la Joseph Embiid, displaying the kind of swagger one would find in And1 mixtapes; in the first 3×3 match, one player from a Xi’an team spits a quick diss to the opposing team that is on the verge of cringe (“my name is Xiaocha I come from Xi’an, anyone who plays against me is going to get penetrated”).

Zhou Rui (in white), would be the first winner of the 1×1 competition that night

Dunks, buzzerbeaters, upsets, the show has it all. A dunkfest, triggered by Li Yifeng saying he would give a jersey to the best dunker on the court, displayed the athleticism of China’s best streetballers, with over-the-head reverse dunks, over-the-head reverse dunks while jumping over multiple people, and all kinds of other crazy combinations. In the 3×3 matches, one nerdy-looking player with a bad knee carries his team (self-deprecatingly called “leftovers”) over a much stronger squad, netting in five three-pointers, one of them a buzzerbeater.

But the upset of the night was without a doubt Gao Jiabo’s victory over 13-time “Street King” basketball tournament champion, Ping Changxin.

Gao Jiabo (in blue) plays against Ping Changxin (in white)

Ping Changxin’s loss to Gao Jiabo is a classic example of huógāi (活该), a word often used in spoken Chinese to express somebody getting what they deserved, usually because of improper behavior.

Despite Ping being one of the strongest players out of the 60 contestants, he picked the weakest-looking out of the four players who stood up to challenge him. Indeed, it seemed that Gao Jiabo had come to the show as a jester rather than as a player, singing opera, dancing to Fitz and the Tantrum’s “Handclap”, even wearing a mask during the match to protect his face in case it got hurt. A student at the Beijing Music Academy, Gao’s purpose was, in his words, “to wreck all the basketball players who ever looked down upon singers” (“干掉所有看不起歌手的球员”).

A meme has since spread around Weibo that takes the second part of Gao’s melodramatic declaration and replaces it with any humorous sentence.

“Wreck all those science students who look down upon humanities students”

What should have been a breeze of a game for Ping, ended up being a nightmare. Ping got some easy baskets to start, but then decided he was going to fool around with his weak opponent, doing streetball tricks and not making a real effort to score. Gao started to fightback, defending Ping fiercely and attacking the basket. After managing to score two baskets, the score was 6-4 in favor of Ping, who seemed shocked at the outcome. He tried to run down the last 25 seconds of the game to prevent Gao from getting the ball, earning Ping boos from everyone, who thought a streetball champion should play with a bit more guts. Nevertheless, Gao was able to jack up a three-point shot in the last 0.5 seconds of the game, missing, but not before Ping fouled him, giving the opera singer a real chance to “wreck” Ping.

True to his words, Gao hit all his freethrows, bringing the whole arena to a frenzy.

But perhaps most surprising about this first episode was the number of winners who chose to receive Li Yifeng’s jersey rather than Jeremy Lin’s. There was one contestant who cited his girlfriend as the defining factor; another contestant described Li Yifeng’s Animal World — all reasons unrelated to basketball.

2018 clown-thriller, “Animal World”

In the next rounds, the judges are going to start acting as coaches, at which point Lin might get his revenge.

In any case, Dunk of China has all the potential to become a smash hit in the mould of Rap of China or Youku’s Street Dance of China. The show’s format makes the matches exciting from start to finish. Unlike Rap of China, its subject matter hasn’t been deemed sensitive by the government. And with all the star power in that judging panel, those who have never picked up a basketball or watched a game might also be converted into hoopers.

Combining a sport with a reality TV show was a bold move from the producers, but if there is one sport that could make such a fusion work in China, it’s basketball.

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.