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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

COVER STORY BASKETBALL
ASIA'S BIG SHOTS

Basketball has given soccer the boot and powered its way to No. 1 sport

By Sangwon Suh


Go to a story about Taiwan basketball

Go to a story about basketball in the Philipines

Go to an interview with NBA-hopeful Wang Zhizhi

Go to a review of NBA marketing skill

Go to a chart showing the NBA's brand-name recognition

FOUL! THAT IS HOW ASIA'S FOOTBALL FANS will no doubt greet the news that their sport has been bumped from the No. 1 spot in the region. Pelé, Beckenbauer, Cruyff and the other football icons have been swept aside in a sporting revolution led by extremely tall Americans in oversized clothes and very large shoes.

According to a survey by a New York-based research company, basketball has dribbled past football and is now Asia's top participatory team sport. Twelve per cent of Asians outside Japan now shoot hoops, compared to 10% who prefer to score goals. In China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, the percentages are even more clear cut: 19 to 11, 26 to 4 and 21 to 14, respectively.

Lies, damned lies and statistics? Apparently not. Even a nation as hermetically sealed as North Korea is getting in on the action. The Pyongyang government newspaper Rodong Shinmun recently urged the country's young people to take up basketball. Why? To strengthen their bodies so they could contribute to "great revolutionary projects, namely work and defense." So there you have it. Cleaning the glass, threading the needle and skywalking will help repel any sneaky attacks from U.S. imperialists and their South Korean puppets. (Never mind that the Americans do those things better than anyone else in the world.)

Historically, the U.S. has nurtured an affection for basketball even when the rest of the world looked on in bemusement, wondering how anyone could get excited about a game that never seemed to break into anything more challenging than a canter. But the new speed, power and sheer charisma of the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA) has changed the way people think -- and play.

From Jakarta to Tokyo, from Singapore to Seoul, the talk these days is of basketball. There is no avoiding the NBA-related T-shirts, caps, basketball cards, posters, magazines and TV shows. In Taiwan, the Chicago Bulls are so idolized that a mediocre baseball team changed its name to The Bulls in the hope that it would improve its performance. It did.

The NBA's appeal is not limited to testosterone-pumped teenage boys with strange haircuts and baggy trousers. Ask six-year-old Agra Salim of Jakarta and he will rattle off a list of the league's best players, including his favorite, Michael Jordan of the Bulls. Kim Young Hee, a 14-year-old Seoul schoolgirl, prefers Jordan's teammate Dennis Rodman, the temperamental and fluorescent-topped forward who is as famous for his on- and off-court controversies as for his basketball skills. "I think he adds spice to the game," says Kim.

As the new NBA season prepares to get underway at the end of this month, Kim, Agra and hundreds of thousands of others in the region are looking forward to another seven months of trash-talking, ego clashes, court-side tantrums, big-buck transfers and, of course, the best basketball on the planet.

What is fueling the NBA craze in Asia? One important factor is the region's growing prosperity -- meaning an increasingly attractive market for the Americans. "We're here because we have business opportunities to chase," says Mary Reiling, managing director of NBA Asia. Such "opportunities" mainly involve selling TV rights and franchising. Outside the U.S., NBA licensing brings in $500 million a year; 27% of that comes from Asia.

NBA Asia also works with sports shoe companies to coordinate overseas tours by American stars. Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and Grant Hill were among those who visited Asia earlier this year to promote the game (and in the case of O'Neal, his music). Such events -- along with eye-catching TV commercials by Nike, Reebok and others -- have done much to raise basketball's profile.

Another major contributor: Michael Jordan, probably the best player ever, whose talent and marketability have sparked worldwide interest in the game. And then there is satellite television -- or, as the Japanese call it, the "shower effect from heaven." NBA games and other U.S. basketball shows are now watched by hundreds of millions of Asians each week -- in a total of 16 languages.

Basketball has traditionally had a following in China, South Korea and Taiwan, but the influence of the American game has changed the way it is organized and played. All three countries have professional leagues that in all but skill look much like what is happening on the other side of the Pacific. There is the same razzmatazz -- including cheerleaders and half-time contests -- plus a smattering of imported U.S. players to add an element of exoticism and a taste of the "real" thing. Taiwan's Chinese Basketball Alliance (CBA) has even adopted NBA rules rather than the international ones used by almost every other league in the world.

In Indonesia, the NBA's cause has been helped by Ari Sudarsono, 45, a former umpire who saw basketball's potential long before it became fashionable. Thanks to his efforts, the country's largest private TV station began screening NBA shows six years ago. Indonesia's professional league, KOBATAMA (Kompetisi Bola Basket Utama, or Main Basketball Competition), is another of his achievements. For many fans, NBA stands for Nonton Basketnya Ari (watching Ari's basket).

China's enthusiasm for basketball is so great that the country has not one but two professional leagues. The 12-team Hilton League -- also called the Chinese National Basketball League -- was formed in 1995 with the backing of the International Management Group (IMG). A year later, Hong Kong's Spectrum Group started the rival Chinese Men's Basketball Alliance (CMBA), featuring eight teams. (It was originally called the Chinese New Basketball Alliance, or CNBA, but the real NBA balked at the similarity in acronyms.) The two outfits are currently locked in battle to become China's premier league.

It is a wasteful arrangement. But there seems little chance of a merger -- particularly if comments by Richard Avery, senior international vice president of IMG, are to be taken at face value. "The CMBA propagates this myth that its league is equal to ours," he says. "It's really about time it admitted that the CMBA division is just second class." Lincoln Venancio, director of Spectrum, also rules out any chance of a get-together, though for a different reason. "Both leagues make great contributions to the game in China, and we feel a fusion is not opportune," he says.

Japan, by contrast, does not have a professional league. But that doesn't mean there is no interest in the game. If anything, the Japanese are bigger fans than anyone else in Asia -- except, perhaps, for the Filipinos. Japan hosts NBA games every other year. A best-selling comic book, Slam Dunk, deals with the exploits of a high-school hoopster. And the number of registered (mostly high-school) basketball players -- now a million-strong -- has been growing by around 80,000 annually for the past several years. "This is impressive in view of the fact that the population of kids in Japan has been dropping," says an official from the Japan Basketball Association.

Thai basketball promoters are hoping for a similar trend. For the moment, though, basketball is no match for football. A few months ago, the end-of-season action in the English Premier League had Thais in a mass trance, while the NBA playoffs barely produced a ripple of interest. But NBA promoter Sirima Silaek says: "There's a massive market here. We are aiming NBA basketball at Thailand's expanding middle class." Suthep Benjapokee, president of the Thai Basketball Association, is confident the game will take off. "The more the NBA becomes popular here, the more interest we can expect in local basketball," he says.

The rule that the American game helps promote local professional leagues doesn't seem to hold in Hong Kong, which has had a semi-professional division since 1925. Though basketball rules in local playgrounds, it remains a poor cousin to football as a spectator sport. "I can think of absolutely no reason to buy tickets to sit in a sub-standard stadium to watch sub-standard games when world-class matches are available on TV," says 27-year-old Samson Ng, a computer reporter by occupation and a basketball fan by inclination.

Meanwhile, Ivan Chan, a secondary-school sports teacher, complains about one undesirable side effect of the NBA's popularity: his students all think they are Michael Jordan. "Every one of them wants to be a star. But that isn't what the game is about," he says. "They should be learning teamwork."

Even in countries where pro basketball is well established and supported, there is sometimes more than just a skill gap between the NBA and the local league. Fans are often divided along gender lines: boys follow American basketball, while girls opt for the home-grown variety. In Taiwan, for example, the atmosphere at a CBA game is more like a rock concert (except that the stars are better built and wear skimpier outfits). Hundreds of teenage girls can be seen -- or, more accurately, heard -- screaming for their heroes, especially if the game features the Hung Kuo Elephants, the island's most popular team. "Their players are cute," says 14-year-old Chen Shu-mei breathlessly. "My favorite is Cheng Chih-lung. He is so good-looking!"

Meanwhile, the boys playing basketball on the courts of Chungshan Middle School are not even aware a Hung Kuo game is going on at the same time across town. Kuo Hung-fu, 15, concedes that he has never attended a CBA game. "The CBA isn't as exciting as the NBA, and they don't play at the same level," he says. William Wu, general manager of Taipei-based Asia Pacific Sports Management, says the league is having a hard time expanding beyond its teenybopper fan base. "Most of the supporters now are young girls who don't understand basketball," he says. "They love the players, not the game. True basketball fans don't feel the CBA, with its idol culture, is worth watching."

Still, Taiwan's basketball promoters insist that the league's range of fans is becoming more diverse. "They are starting to change," says Gennie Yen, a representative of the Hung Kuo Elephants. "There are more older ones now, more males and they are more interested in the game, rather than just in seeing the stars."

South Korea faces a similar problem. Since the days of amateur basketball, a fixture at any game has been the so-called opba budae -- a term for groups of young female students who root for their favorite players by screaming "Opba! [big brother]." The hope is that the establishment last year of the pro Korean Basketball League will attract fans who are more serious and more knowledgeable. "The composition should change," says Kim Ji Woo, a spokesman for the Daewoo Zeus, one of the league teams.

For now, Asia's basketball craze remains in large part an NBA craze. "True" fans will continue to look to America as long as Asian basketball lags behind the U.S. variety in marketing muscle, glamour and, most importantly, skill. But standards are improving -- helped by an influx of U.S. players who, if not quite at the NBA level, have plenty of know-how to pass on.

Arlando Bennett, a former University of Georgia center who played last season for Taiwan's Yulon Dinos, says people in the States have little conception of what is happening in Asia. "They think that all the guys I play against are short and have no skill," he says. "I tell them they couldn't be further from the truth. This league gets better and better each year."

The question now being asked is: Who will be the first Asian to break into the NBA? On the women's side, China's Zheng Haixia and Japan's Hagiwara Mikiko have already made their mark in the WNBA, which in turn is beginning to establish itself as a major crowd-puller. Zheng turns out for the Los Angeles Sparks and Hagiwara for the Phoenix Mercury.

But for Asian men, the race for fame, dollars and a mention on TV's Inside Stuff is still open. Some place their bets with South Korean star Seo Jang Hoon, a veteran of U.S. college basketball. Another contender is 2.36 m (7 ft 9 in) North Korean Ri Myong Hun, who is currently biding his time in Canada while waiting for permission to work in the U.S.

But China, with its large pool of talent, is perhaps the most likely to produce the first Asian to pull on an NBA shirt. And the most likely among the most likelies is 19-year-old Wang Zhizhi. "He has the caliber to become an NBA player," says basketball agent Charles Bonsignor, who saw Wang play during a U.S. visit by the Chinese national team.

If Wang does succeed, it would be a boon not only for Chinese basketball but for the NBA. Its merchandising people are no doubt already dreaming of measuring up 1.2 billion fans for sneakers, shorts, T-shirts and caps. But before that happens, there is one more area in which Wang -- and Asian hoopsters in general -- need to catch up with the Americans: bulk. As Dana Magenau of IMG remarks: "He needs more flesh on his bones." But that's probably nothing an American lifestyle can't take care of.

It is the early morning of July 1 in China, barely five hours since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule. On the mainland side of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border crossing, three nattily dressed schoolchildren are standing in the light drizzle with Chinese flags in their hands. They are part of the brigade dragooned into seeing off the Hong Kong-bound People's Liberation Army. But the soldiers have not turned up yet, so the sleepy-eyed boys are lolling around, doing their best to stave off boredom. As their elders across the country celebrate the historic handover, one of the youngsters turns to the others with a question dealing with an equally weighty matter: "What do you think Michael Jordan is doing now?"

-- With reports by Jon Grevatt / Bangkok, Anne Naham / Beijing, Law Siu-lan and Alexandra A. Seno / Hong Kong, Dewi Pudyanti Restiana / Jakarta, Laxmi Nakarmi / Seoul, Laurie Underwood / Taipei and Murakami Mutsuko / Tokyo


THE NBA: A SPORTS LEAGUE WITH A HEAD FOR BUSINESS

Total NBA licensing revenue: $3.1 billion a year

NBA coverage in Asia spans 18 countries and 16 languages

According to a brand-recognition survey, the Chicago Bulls are

the 10th-most-recognizable brand in the world; the NBA

A fifth of the world's teenagers own NBA-licensed products

The most popular NBA item in Asia is the Chicago Bulls

"authentic replica" jersey, which costs $60-$75


THE REAL THING?

Brand recognitionamong teenagers
(ages 15-18)
COKE NBA CHICAGO

BULLS

CHINA 93% 79% 76%
HONG KONG 96% 89% 92%
INDIA 94% 30% 39%
INDONESIA 95% 82% 77%
JAPAN 99% 83% 83%
KOREA 98% 91% 89%
PHILIPPINES 98% 95% 95%
SINGAPORE 95% 85% 91%
TAIWAN 98% 90% 94%
THAILAND 95% 62% 75%
 

Source: DMB&B New World Teen Study


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