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“Dunk of China” MVP Zhang Ning Wants to Change the Face of Chinese Basketball

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Zhang Ning is not your average Chinese basketball player.

At only 21, the Hebei native has already been crowned MVP of Youku hit TV show Dunk of China’s inaugural season, showered in praise from the Mainland’s most famous celebrities, and turned Peking University (PKU) into the dominant force in the Chinese University Basketball Association (CUBA), along with partner-in-crime and longtime friend, Zhu Mingzhen.

Zhang is known for being both a shooter and an aggressive driver — a lethal combination, one that streetball veterans like Shanghai native HotDog (热狗), who was completely torched by Zhang in Dunk of China’s first episode, found impossible to guard.

Now finishing his junior year, Zhang is doing anything but patting himself on the back for mingling with China’s biggest basketball and entertainment icons. Unwilling to sit on the bench of a Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) team, he is determined to put a foot in the United States, even if only to then return home and become a dominant player in the CBA.

This is exactly what 22-year-old Xinjiang Flying Tigers bench player Abudushalumu “Abu” Abudurexiti did last summer. Wrangling a spot on the Golden State Warriors Summer League roster, he became the first ethnic Uyghur basketball player to get a taste of NBA action.

While Abu’s measly averages are not even worth mentioning, that one month in the US propelled the player to his best CBA season ever. Zhang now dreams of being the next in line to suit up for an NBA team.

During RADII’s sit-down with one of Chinese basketball’s top prospects, Zhang talks about the differences between streetball and associated basketball, the pressures facing the thousands of Chinese youth who hope to play in the CBA, and gives an honest opinion on what’s holding Chinese basketball from following the Chinese economy in closing the seemingly insurmountable gap with its American counterpart.

How did you fall in love with basketball?

I was always the hyperactive kid in my class. Teachers would often talk about how naughty I was, which is fair enough — I liked fooling around with my classmates, fighting and what not, as well as just collision in general [laughs].

One defining moment was when I was still in third grade. My mother bought me a burgundy basketball uniform, and when my friends saw me wear it, they said, “That’s the uniform of the Cleveland Cavaliers!” I had never heard of the Cavaliers before. But that led me to discover the NBA, start watching games, and basically become a LeBron [James] fan.

I think my playing style may have even been subconsciously influenced by LeBron’s physical style. Nowadays, LeBron is still my favorite player, Chinese or otherwise.

How did you start thinking of basketball as a career?

Once I got to high school, my parents had to start thinking about university and all that stuff. At the time, I wasn’t the most intellectual of kids — not because I was stupid, but more because I was already passionate about basketball and investing most of my time into it.

Realizing where my interests lay, my parents took me around the province to see what different people thought of my skills. After a PE teacher close to our parents told them I was very talented, they found the coach of Shijiazhuang High School, the best high school for basketball in Hebei province. He liked me, but because I’d never trained formally, my fundamentals were non-existent, so I re-did my first year of high school and that’s where I started to become a player that university scouts found interesting.

After the top universities began to recruit me, I started to think about going to Tsinghua and PKU. At the time, I was also playing against high school kids who were in youth teams. I felt my level was similar to theirs, so it made me think I had what it took to make the CBA after university.

After I started university, my objectives were pretty clear. While my teammates who don’t want to play for the CBA spend most of their free time studying, most of my free time goes into training.

What’s the recruiting process like? How do coaches approach you?

They’ll promise things like, “If you come to my team I’ll guarantee you automatic entry into a postgraduate degree.” They’ll also promise one of three scholarship packages: if they really want you, they might give you 5,000RMB per month; 3,000RMB if you’re not that special; 2,000RMB if you’re just a role player. However, promises like the “automatic entry” still depends on your grades.

How did you get recruited by Peking University?

They usually just recruit one player that doesn’t need to take any tests so my hopes weren’t high, especially because the Gaokao score for Hebei PKU applicants is really high. Therefore, when I went to tryout with the PKU team as a high school senior I was actually pretty relaxed, plus I also thought, My basketball skills are better than the others, their grades are better mine, that’s all. I performed pretty well as a result, and that year PKU broke their rule and took in two players without looking at their grades.

What’s the difference between being a youth team basketball player and a high-level university basketball player?

I guess the first thing is education. My father, being a professor, always told me that no matter if I wanted to be a baller, a performer, or an artist, basic education was something I needed. He knew that if I joined a youth team, I wouldn’t study anymore, which he wasn’t okay with because all my future would then be pinned on basketball.

But both formats have their advantages. As a youth team player, you can spend literally all your time on basketball. Medical staff will also do everything to get you back to health if you’re injured, and the opportunities to enter the CBA are plentiful, as there’s always a CBA team affiliated with a youth team.

What’s your growth been like at PKU?

The first year was probably the most depressing year of my whole life. In my last year of high school, I participated in the Asian High School Games held in Thailand, where I won the finals MVP. However, we lost in the final. I twisted my knee pretty badly in the last minute, when the game was tied. I told the coach I could play the last minute, even though I was really hurt. The other team realized I was the weak point in the team’s defense, so the guy I was defending drove hard to the basket, I thought I could keep up, but he just went right past me and scored the game-winning layup.

They took me straight to the hospital where the mood was gloomy as hell. We lost the championship, I was surrounded by a room full of coughing old people, and I knew this injury was severe. They only told me after I got back to the hotel that I won the MVP. I was surprised — even though I did an average of like 30, 40 points a game, the MVP usually just goes to the winning team.

I joined the PKU team as “that kid who won an MVP at an international competition,” but I was still injured. I gained 20 pounds, my level wasn’t as good as my older teammates, and I was having a tough time mentally. It was hard to accept my body wasn’t fully healed.

But after the first year, my body finally caught up and from second year onwards, my role within the team gradually increased.

How did you get into Dunk of China?

I scored 30 points in the final of last year’s CUBA championship, which brought me a lot of attention from people including Dunk of China, who sent scouts to the final. When they first explained the concept to me, however, it sounded like a joke. I don’t want to act or do anything theatrical. I’m not like MoreFree and those guys. Their style is all about performance, I’m more about being a professional baller. I don’t like doing all those fancy dribbles. But [the producers] assured me that aside from a few scenes, everything would be about the matches played.

I asked my coach for advice, because for every aspiring pro baller, summer is the most important time of the year. It’s where you either train with a team or work on your game so you can come back next season a completely different player. I was then planning to go to the United States and get a personal trainer.

In the end, I chose to participate for a number of reasons. Firstly, I knew this show would get me a certain level of exposure that’s going to help my basketball future in China. China’s sports industry is a little behind the US, in that it doesn’t make the sport center around the player, it lacks personality and marketing power. If you look at how Zhou Qi and Yi Jianlian made it to the United States, their level wasn’t actually up to par with your average NBA player. But because they had such a huge fanbase in China, the NBA teams who signed them knew it was a smart decision, marketing-wise. As soon as Zhou Qi joins the Rockets, millions of Chinese basketball fans became die-hard Rockets fans.

If you and I were at the same level and fighting for a spot in the roster, for example, the deciding factor will be which player can pull in more fans and ticket sales. The business value of a player is something all basketball organizations consider.

Zhang featured in a Dunk of China cartoon

Did you expect to be crowned Dunk of China’s MVP and win the championship?

That’s a really good question, because in the beginning, I didn’t even really want to be on the show. I was worried about the level of play, and everyone knew I was. Even the producer asked me how I was interacting with the streetballers on the show, who had I never interacted with.

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My first impression of the ballers in the show was that there was a huge schism between the university basketball players — who were all about high-IQ, high-efficiency basketball — versus the streetballers, who were really skilled and free in their playing style, but also unreliable and reckless.

Whenever people would ask me in the beginning how I liked the basketball on the show, I would answer: “If this show is about who can do the most tricks, then I won’t get far. I’m not a performer and I can’t do all those gimmicks.” Also, I knew that a lot of these variety shows were scripted, so the thought of being forced to play out a plot, like deliberately losing or something, was something I felt strongly averse to. But the producer actually let us players decide the plot.

This is was why the first episode was so successful. All the plot twists in that episode were real and unscripted. Everyone loves the underdog beating the favorite, the last-second buzzer beater — all kinds of plot twists. But if it turns out all these things were planned beforehand, well, what’s the point then?

What are your plans in the near future?

I’m looking at different options, but my priority is to try something new. Going to the United States to train and get exposed to their level of intensity — which is undoubtedly higher than Chinese basketball — is definitely an option.

If I enter the CBA straight after university, then the coach of the team that drafts me will probably look at me as “just a university basketball player”. But if I get some experience in an American league — maybe during my last year of university, or even after I graduate — even if I don’t have a smooth ride, it will change the way CBA coaches think of me.

Something like the G-League?

Yeah, or even just training with an NBA team.

Kind of like Abu playing with the Golden State Warriors’ Summer League team?

Exactly. My agent is also Abu’s agent….

Did his experience in the US leave a deep impression on you?

For sure. Before he went to the US, Abu wasn’t a dominant player in Xinjiang. He had potential, but something was missing. After he came back from the US, he began averaging 20 plus points for the national team, not to mention his CBA team.

Also, his CBA coach isn’t keeping him on the bench anymore. Why? Because he is now one of the only CBA players with US experience, so the coach feels forced to increase his minutes, otherwise fans aren’t going to be pleased and management is going to start questioning him.

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Why do you think Chinese basketball is still far behind the US?

Well there’s the obvious difference in athletic potential. China’s best sports, like ping pong, none of them involve a lot of jumping. It’s not like in the US.

But a more serious issue is the suppression of a sportsman’s personality in China. In the US, basketball is a huge business, but in China we still haven’t placed the emphasis on the individuals who play the sport.

Those from the elder generation who see me go on shows will disapprove of me, they’ll say I should just go train all day and label me as an “entertainer” rather than a basketball player. But just because I’m filming an advertisement doesn’t me I don’t work hard to become a better basketball player every day. I just pay attention to exposure as well.

Zhang Ning in a Beats By Dre advertisement

Just look at Stephen Curry’s style of playing. In China, coaches would criticize many of his moves. But why should a coach change my style of play? What gives him the right to dictate my personality?

In China, too many players have the exact same style. There is no variety — some are stronger, some are weaker, that’s all. Just look at why Guo Ailun is so loved right now: it’s because he doesn’t care about what others expect him to. He’ll trash talk, say “cao ni ma” [“f*** your mother”]. Nobody in the CBA is as emotional as him.

On the other hand, Abu’s potential was getting suppressed all these years. It was only after he returned from the US that he gained the right to play his own way. Now he’s doing well, but think about us university players who want to have successful CBA careers. Abu started playing CBA at 18 years old, he got suppressed for five years, and now he’s 23. A lot of youth team players will go through a similar process. But if I go to the CBA and receive similar treatment, I’ll be burnt out by 29.

That’s why I respect streetballers like MoreFree and HotDog. I don’t like HotDog, but I respect him and MoreFree for daring to think differently, for going against the established norm, and just being themselves. It’s really hard to go against the system. I know they went through a lot of hardships because of their bravery.

Related:

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Do you have any older teammates that have suffered from coaches who had this mentality?

Yes, my PKU teammate Guo Kai [born in 1992] is a really talented player who entered the CBA two years ago. But the last two years, it’s been really depressing to see him play. He’s playing for Guangzhou Long-Lions now, and there was one game recently where he played for 30 minutes and had 0 points. He still received praise for getting so many rebounds.

However, I know that Guo Kai can do more than just get rebounds. I know he’s trying to please his coach, to play like his coach expects him to play. I guess you have to sacrifice yourself to keep your job in the CBA, I get it. But that’s a fate that I wish won’t befall me.

This is why I think getting a huge fanbase is important for me. If I have all these fans, then that will serve as kind of insurance against coaches or management trying to screw me over. Even if you don’t want to play me, you know you have to, because the fans will complain if you don’t.

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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