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Meet MoreFree, the Chinese Streetball Pioneer Who Can’t Stop Battling NBA Stars

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In the US and Europe, knowledge about Chinese basketball can be boiled down to a few household names and age-old stereotypes: NBA All-Star Yao Ming, Jeremy Lin’s 30-game scoring onslaught (nicknamed “Linsanity”), and videos of Chinese toddlers displaying insane dribbling skills while dancing to a corny Mandopop beat.

But for many average Chinese practitioners of the sport, 33-year-old streetball legend MoreFree (aka 吴悠 Wu You) has long been a household name.

For the past fifteen years, the Beijing native has dedicated his heart and soul to bringing basketball to the people, organizing high-intensity streetball tournaments that deliberately stray from the format of a professional league basketball match; no over-priced ticket fee for the audience, which spills onto the four lines of the court, creating a doghouse-type atmosphere; games are short and snappy, with a high turnover of players, many selected from the audience; either MoreFree or some other smooth-tongue friend of his acts as the MC, riling up the crowd and providing comic relief when necessary; fouling, physical play, and trash-talking are all implicitly endorsed.

Throughout the year, MoreFree’s tournaments tour the nation but “Sunset Dongdan,” a weekend tournament held between May and July in east Beijing’s Dongdan Courts, is indisputably recognized as the best. Check out these dope videos from last year and this year’s edition:

MoreFree’s 2017 Sunset Dongdan mixtape:

Last week of 2018 edition:

In short, these tournaments are incomparably more entertaining than a Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) game, which many young Chinese tacitly boycott in favor of the NBA. MoreFree’s status as the face of the non-professional Chinese basketball world has made him a nation-wide celebrity, but also a source of controversy. A consummate student of the game, MoreFree is constantly striving to become a better basketball player, including challenging scores of NBA players to one-on-one matches — which most of the time he loses.

This has got him roasted by many netizens, who seem befuddled at MoreFree’s persistence in battling these heavyweights. Moreover, in a culture where modesty is held up on a pedestal with idioms like “Modesty leads to progress, arrogance makes you drop behind,” many see MoreFree’s swagger as a sign that fame has gotten to his head. Some have even spread rumors about MoreFree being a fu’erdai, or the spoilt son of a rich household.

Meanwhile, the past few years have seen an increasing number of international basketball tournaments and gurus linking up with MoreFree and the Chinese streetball culture that has grown in parallel to his own fame.

Take Paris’s Quai 54, an international streetball competition known for attracting the best talent from around the globe. In 2015, MoreFree led a team of Chinese streetballers in what was China’s first participation in the tournament.

The next year, renowned basketball trainer and founder of the viral TEN000HOURS basketball documentary series, Devin Williams, travelled with MoreFree to Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, looking for the most talented and hard-working streetball players. The one-hour documentary is a testimony to the global power of basketball, as LA native Williams discovers China and its people by sharing with them his love for the game.

Meanwhile, MoreFree has delved into pockets of American streetball culture, which have also been poetically captured in long-form documentary:

With all these contrasting impressions, we decided to catch up with MoreFree after a workout to understand the man behind the Chinese grassroots basketball scene.

So how did you become so passionate about basketball?

My father and grandfather are both soldiers, so our family lived inside a military compound, and we had our own backyard where my cousins put a makeshift basketball hoop. My father and all five of my older cousins were big fans of the sport, and when the military compound organized basketball tournaments they would participate as the “Wu Clan.”

In the beginning, I didn’t get their passion for the game; when I was watching cartoons, they’d switch channels to watch NBA, which annoyed me, I thought it was weird they liked watching black men jumping up and down on TV. every summer, they would put a sound system outside and hoop to the Michael Jackson tunes ­– it was really noisy and it scared me away. They didn’t really want to me to play anyway because I was so much shorter than everyone else, even the girls in my primary school class.

MoreFree

But once I got to third grade, I realized basketball could become a way for me to earn my older cousins’ respect; they were always bullying me and I wanted revenge. Like most other kids at the time, I was into wuxia [martial arts] fiction, especially the narrative where the bullied character goes into the mountains, trains in seclusion, and makes a glorious return, stunning everyone with his newly acquired skills – that was how I approached basketball: when naptime came in primary school, I would sneak out to practice; when my cousins went out to play, unbeknownst to them I would also follow, watching them from a distance and studying the good players, observing how they did certain moves. After two years, everyone knew I was a hooper and my cousins finally allowed me to play with them, my uncles started to teach me some fundamentals like left-handed layups, etc.

Meanwhile, I started noticing everyone in my class veering towards football, which was much more popular than basketball at the time, which made me like basketball even more; I stood out from the crowd, and it made me proud. I even started to teach some friends how to play. But once I got to middle school, I was too short and skinny to make it onto my class’s starting roster; any physical contact would send me flying. At the start of high school, a growth spurt got me up to 1.60m, which was still short but it gave my confidence a huge boost. To be honest, I always thought my basketball skills were better than everyone else’s; people didn’t respect me as a hooper because of my height and nothing else. But that just made the vengeful mindset I had developed as a kid carry on… forever.

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So what was it like to play the sport in the ’90s?

In the ’90s, much of the basketball infrastructure that we see in Beijing nowadays didn’t exist like regimented training schedules in high-tech facilities or basketball academies with foreign coaches. All of us kids who played ball had a very simple-minded approach: if you want to play better, just play every day; if you want jump higher, jump every day; if you want more muscle, do more reps. In high school, whenever I saw a basketball hoop my trigger reaction was to jump up and grab it; if there were ten basketball hoops lined up, I would grab the rim of each one. To build leg muscle, I would squat 200 times in one go, once I did 300 and my classmates had to help me walk the next day.

How did you discover streetball and bring it into China?

Unlike basketball, streetball was love at first sight. When I first saw Nike’s “Hip Hoop” freestyle basketball ad in 2001, it was like I a whole new world had opened up before my eyes; they were doing all these crazy tricks, it was surreal.

At the time, I thought my handles were pretty sick, but after seeing this ad, basketball suddenly seemed just as magical as the Wuxia novels I had read as a kid. That summer, when the “Hip Hoop” ad played every day at 6pm, I would glue my eyes on the screen, snapshot one trick with my memory (there were no iPhones or handy recording devices at the time) and immediately go off and practice it. By the end of the summer, I had mastered about 70-80% of the tricks and everyone in the military compound knew I was into this new thing called “streetball”, along with the music and fashion associated with it; hip-hop, long baggy shorts, low-top socks, shooting sleeves, headbands, etc.

When winter came, I participated in a basketball-spinning competition on Beijing TV’s Sports channel, Dreams Come True (梦想成长) and won first place (my finger hurt like hell though). After I won, the producers let me perform a streetball sequence for the crowd, which was lit; I showed off all the “Hip Hoop” moves I studied that summer to the sound of hip hop music.

To most of the crowd and people watching at home, my performance represented their first encounter with streetball, let alone a Chinese streetballer.

I became a celebrity in school, not just because I had been on TV, but because my prize was a PC, an exotic luxury at the time. Now that I had the Internet, I quickly found a magazine that came with a Video CD of the Hip Hoop ad; I could now constantly replay the ad on my PC, even study it in slo-mo, which really helped my development.

But that winter, I was in for a second revelation: AND1 [MoreFree is referring to the American sneaker brand’s streetball tours that began in 1999. Every year, AND1 would put out a streetball summer mixtape featuring the best plays from the yearly tour around America ]

These hoopers weren’t simply streetball performers, they would use streetball to get past defenders in a game, humiliating them, breaking their ankles. I thought this was even cooler than the “Hip Hoop” ad. With all this inspiration from the US’s streetball movement, I worked out every day; that year my body and skills developed at its fastest rate ever.

The next year I participated in another TV show called The Road to Gold (金牌之路). This time, I was part of a seven-man basketball team selected from over 100 applicants from the country.

All eyes were on me at the time; my other teammates weren’t as outspoken as me, plus I was the only one in the lineup representing streetball, so the crowd took a liking to me; there were also a lot of people who cursed me out.

But besides fame, the competition also helped my game. We mostly played 5 v 5 matches which helped me get used to playing in a more formal setting; it also got me noticed by the coaches of Beijing Sports University, which became a lifesaver because my gaokao score was pretty mediocre so there weren’t a lot of universities I could get into based on grades alone; that’s what happens when you play basketball all day.

I know from the Devin Williams documentary that you’ve also harbored a long-time goal of making it onto a professional basketball squad, can you tell us a bit more about that?

Once I started university, my goal was to become China’s Skip 2 My Lou [the first and only streetballer-turned-NBA professional, real name Rafer Alston]. However, my four years at Beijing Sports University were a wake-up call. I was still short (1.70m) and skinny while many of my teammates were professional basketball players that had left their teams to get a university degree. Not only did I fail to get into our university team, but I wasn’t even the best player in our class team.

But I was, as always, in avenger mode, so I started to think of ways to accelerate my development. That’s when playing in a professional team became the obvious solution; if I could make it onto a professional squad while in university, then playing university ball would become easy. After two months training with the only military-affiliated CBA team, Bayi Youth Team, I felt my game had soared, no one in my university was better than me, including those in the university squad.

Senior year tryouts, I scored 20 points in one half of playing time, but even then, the coach didn’t pick me. Even more ridiculous was how after Titan Sports Newspaper (体坛周报) wrote an article on my desire to become “China’s Skip 2 My Lou,” the coach came up to me after reading the piece and said “If I had known you were this passionate about basketball, I would have given you a chance!”

MoreFree

After graduating in 2007, I joined professional basketball team Zhejiang Guangsha Tigers for almost two months. That time was my best chance of making it professionally; I was at my peak, physically and skill-wise. But because it was still the preseason, there was a last minute change which brought in a new head coach, who brought with him a bunch of new players he personally knew and favored; it was pretty sketchy, but that’s what many Chinese teams did at the time so there was nothing I could except accept a half-month salary as compensation and leave.

In 2008, I ended up getting noticed by a coach of a Shenzhen-based team sponsored by Li Ning. I went with the team on a pre-season camp to Portland, USA, paying 10,000 RMB for the flight ticket with the money I had made through TV ads and performances. We spent 45 days training at a USA Basketball facility, playing against local teams and receiving NBA-level coaching.

As someone who has always loved American culture, that first trip to the US was a dream come true. I was only able to dunk once in a blue moon before this trip; after, dunking became pretty easy.

But in the end, this team didn’t sign me, even though I felt I was good enough to make it. As I had already graduated, my parents told me to find a job, which I was completely against; in my eyes it would mean completely renouncing my dreams of becoming a professional basketball player.

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After ten years of organizing streetball tournaments and representing China’s basketball culture, I’m still trying to make it onto a professional basketball team. Perhaps the only difference now is that I’m not aiming for the CBA anymore – coaches from those teams will probably think I’m too old [33 years]. But I’m going to try out for the Zhuhai Wolf Warriors soon, they’re a team competing in the ABL, a regional professional league with teams from all over Southeast Asia. This is probably my last opportunity to make it as a professional basketball player.

Do you think your fame as a streetballer affected your chances of making it as a professional basketball player? 

Definitely. During the ’90s and early 2000s, too many misinterpreted streetball. As soon as university classmates or coaches knew I was associated with streetball, they’d instantly profile me as someone incapable of passing, defending, or playing with any kind of fundamentals or strategy; streetballers were only into gimmicks and showboating, incompatible with professional basketball. If I weren’t labeled in this way back then, perhaps I would have made it into my university team, perhaps I would have made it onto a professional team, who knows.

MoreFree

Nowadays, this prejudice is slowly going away, partly because of my events’ 5×5 matches, known for their intensity, caliber, and bringing professional players onto the same court with the best amateur players or streetballers.

So tell us more about your events. How did it all start?

Well it was in 2008. Even though I didn’t want to commit to getting a job, I still had to make money somehow. That’s when the idea of organizing streetball events came to mind. Since 2003, I had been part of the CL (Chinese Legendary) Smooth Crew, a team of streetballers. I decided to hold a CL open run in 2008, where the best players would be able to join our crew.

But the real reason why I felt the need to organize this competition was because the Chinese streetball movement at the time was facing extinction.

A lot of brands stopped organizing events or tournaments; AND1 began to lose its appeal from 2007 onwards; the Beijing Olympics drew people’s attention away from grassroots, amateur tournaments.

Also, 2007 was the year myself and many other streetballers graduated university; everyone was busy looking for a job and so a lot of teams disbanded then. I felt that by organizing a tournament, streetballers could have a new objective to work for; if there are no tournaments, you have no motivation to practice.

My parents weren’t too pleased with this idea, mainly because nobody had ever done this before. However, I told my mother that if the whole thing flops, I’d be willing to consider getting a job. Funding came partly from my own pocket, 5,000-6,000 RMB from money I had saved after university. I stuck poster ads on hundreds of basketball courts in Beijing, friends distributed fliers in clothes shop, as well as spamming the Internet; Weibo wasn’t too popular at the time, but we posted in all the relevant blogs, as well as Baidu Tieba. Everyone was thinking of ways to promote the event, we were all hungry to organize a good event; many friends came to Beijing especially to lend me a helping hand.

MoreFree

The open run was straight fire, even more lit than an AND1 event. I’ll never forget the day, 21st June 2008; it had been raining hail two days before which meant cancellation was likely; we didn’t have money to rent an indoor court. The evening of the 20th, it was still hailing and I went to bed praying that a higher power would come to my aid; the next day, I opened the curtains to a glorious sun, I almost cried of joy. Everything went super smoothly from then on. As soon as the event was over, the hailstorm resumed. Myself and a few other friends didn’t sleep for the next three days in order to put together a mixtape of the open run, which we then sent to brands like Nike, who were so impressed they offered to cover all the costs for the next open run.

That day was one of the most important in my life. It left a lasting feeling: the moment you try to do something for a movement or for others, the whole world colludes to help you succeed.

If the hailstorm hadn’t paused on that day, I might have been forced to find a job.

From 2010, the events were not just once a year. In 2011, I went on a nation-wide tour, just like what AND1 did in the United States. In 2012, I organized the first “Sunset Dongdan” tournament. In 2013, I organized a tournament designed to bring the put the best streetball players from each city into teams who would then compete against each other for a national championship. The level was pretty high, every team could add two players playing professionally. After that tournament, every city started to its own streetball teams and the entire grassroots scene in the country returned to prominence once more.

You’ve played against lots of NBA players. What’s been a highlight for you?

I think my favorite 1×1 was when I played Derrick Rose back in 2008, it was my birthday on that day actually. At the time, Derrick was at his peak, and it was my first time experiencing what it’s like to play against an NBA caliber-type player.

However, the most controversial match was in 2013 when myself and a team of streetball players went up against Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Carmelo Anthony [all current NBA all-starts]. They were meant to take it in turns playing for the opposing teams but after they lost once, two of them joined the team; after they lost again, all three of them played against us, and they still lost. It was only after they added an extra quarter, once the regular game was over, and started playing seriously, that they managed to beat us. I don’t think they expected us to play so seriously because it was an exhibition game but I had told my team before the game “because they are NBA players, we have to bring our A-game all the more.”

But there was one moment in that game that Chinese netizens went on to roast me for. I was being defended by Chris Paul, who didn’t take me seriously. I always want players that are better than me to play tough so I started teasing him, signaling to him to come closer and play proper defense. He refused to come, I drove, lost the ball by myself, and then Paul scored a basket on me.

People online started to say all kinds of things about how arrogant I was which I’m not surprised because it is very Chinese to get scared of losing face, which is something I have never been afraid of. Chinese people sometimes seem to have all these excuses when playing foreign players, like we have no business challenging them. My mentality is that I need to learn them, and I can only do that if they play hard against me, even if it means me provoking them first.

What are your thoughts on Chinese basketball culture?

To be honest, I’ve always been leading this culture. Chinese basketball fans have always studied and imitated me — from my early days of mainly doing tricks and gimmicks, to my focus on working on fundamentals, to the concept of “elite training” I brought over from the States.

This is why Yao Ming invited me to participate on the Chinese Basketball Association’s annual meeting. He understands China’s basketball culture.

I’m hoping in the future my tournaments can involve the CBA in a way that creates a channel for street-ballers to build professional careers for themselves, something I didn’t have after graduating.

On a more general level, I think the way Chinese people look at basketball is still very superficial. In China, people seem to despise the underdog and worship the strong. In the States, I think it’s the opposite; over there, people would probably praise me on how someone of my height tried to compete with Chris Paul. Where I see bravery, Chinese people see an opportunity to ridicule.

MoreFree

In China, people just look at results rather than the actual process of becoming a basketball player. Many will look at videos of me doing high-intensity training with Devin Williams and ask, “Why is he doing all that if he’s not going to play in the CBA?” or “How much money can one make training like that?” With regards to these basketball fans who are unwilling to invest their time and energy into basketball, something that is so common in the United States, there is no point in me engaging with them; our mindsets are not on the same level.

I think pushing one’s limits for the sake of pushing is something more easily understood in the West than in China. I may fail to get into a professional basketball team, but why not try? At the end of the day, I don’t play basketball to make money, I play it because it allows me to appreciate life, enjoy the present, to better myself.

Do you think fellow Chinese streetballers are as passionate about basketball as you are?

I think no one in China comes close to loving the game as much as me. All the documentaries show us training really hard but the part where everyone goes off to the shopping mall and I continue train by myself has never been filmed. When we’re on tour basketball is all that I think about; the rest of my teammates will think of seeing the sights, buying stuff.

That’s the difference between me and the rest of Chinese streetballers. They may be better players, but nobody loves basketball as much as I do. Even in the States, only a few can match my degree of intensity, my thirst to win.

Perhaps my understanding of basketball is different, but I always look at Kobe Bryant; he only became the Black Mamba by being as obsessive as he was about the game.

What are your hopes for the future?

Besides trying to make it into a professional basketball team by next year, I never think too far into the future. However, I know what I don’t want and Dunk of China is one of them. My view is that shows like that don’t prioritize basketball but entertainment. I don’t need the fame the show gives it contestants; I’m already famous. I don’t need to play against any of the contestants; I’m already better than them.

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Instead of giving up time to film these kinds of shows in China, I can spend my own money and go to Dyckman, Venice Beach, and other legendary hallmarks of American streetball. Losing by 30 against American players brings the dog in me, not beating Chinese streetballers.

I want to play in new places rather than stay in China and build up my status or fanbase. Life is so short, I know that once I hit 35 or 36, my body will start weakening and there is nothing I can do about. So right now, my greatest priority is to make good use of my time rather than do meaningless things like take pictures with fans all day.

A lot of people have asked me why I’m not participating in Dunk of China, why I haven’t been appearing on TV so much, etc. They assume I’ve grown old but nobody knows I’m working out every day to realize my dreams of being a professional basketball player, I don’t tell many people. Netizens will always find a way to criticize me, probably because there are so many videos online of me losing. But I’m willing to release these videos, while other streetballers will only share videos that make them look good.

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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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