Su Wei stands jackknifed, clutching his stomach, face scrunched in agony. Along with the rest of the Guangdong Tigers' junior team, Su is in his third workout and sixth hour of training at the Guangzhou Sports Institute. He's a unique Chinese teenager, 6'11" and 260 pounds with feet arched like a lowercase "n." His is not a body built for continuous running, but that's what he's been doing. Film sessions, water breaks, postpractice ice packs? They're not on the agenda. Running is.
It's too bad all the effort and energy haven't made Su Wei in particular, or his country in general, significantly better at the game of basketball. For years, China has been identifying its most promising teens, then making them eat, sleep and breathe the game the same way Eastern European programs do. But it hasn't produced anywhere near the same number of world-class players.
Lost in the exertion, of course, is focus and execution. Basketball is stop-and-go sprints, split-second decisions, instinctive reactions. Blame the rote boot-camp training for the Chinese players' tendency to falter under pressure.
This reality doesn't yet concern Su. He's just 16, and won't turn 17 until July. Being able to play ball every day is a dream come true. Where you're born in China can determine what sport you play. Su's small northeastern village, Rizhao, is known for producing rowers, and that's what he was until his body grew beyond the ideal 6'4" scull-fitting frame. Because a family friend happened to know the Tigers' junior team coach, Zhang Zheng Min, Su Wei is now with the best organization in the Chinese Basketball Association.
"I feel lucky to be here," Su says through an interpreter. "Excited, honored, delighted. Everything."
The Tigers, two-time defending CBA champs, are the league's only independently owned team. (The government runs the other 14.) Their success, top-tier coaching and high-end facilities attract plenty of young talent. And that talent is groomed for the senior team's up-tempo style, which is a break from the walk-it-up Chinese tradition. The playbook overhaul came after seniors coach Li Chun Jiang visited the United States four years ago and saw the Sonics and Blazers run through their paces. Four Tigers are on the senior national team, and Su's teammate, Chen Jiang Hua, has the potential to be the first Chinese guard to make it to the NBA.
Su has already gotten a taste of how the rest of the world plays the game. He was among 70 invitees to the NBA Basketball Without Borders Asia camp in Beijing last summer. In December, he played in a high school tournament in Edmonton. In March, he makes his second trip to a basketball academy in Eugene, Ore.
His skills are definitely the better for the travel. Su had less than two years of formal training when he scrimmaged against a Guangzhou technical college last spring, and at the time his innate enthusiasm alone couldn't compensate for his rawness. He barreled through opponents and bricked free throws. He also tried to block every shot and grab every carom, which made him stand out in a good way. "He's shown the most improvement of all of our players," Zhang says. "He has a chance to be on the Tigers' senior team, maybe even the national team, in a few years."
But not yet. Last April at a camp in Beijing, Su towered over a 32-year-old college center, 6'7" Wang Hui. A former Tiger, Wang dominated Su. It was painfully obvious why Zhang feels the need to be patient. "He's strong but he doesn't know how to use his strength," Wang says through an interpreter after the showdown. "I whispered dirty words in his ear to drive him crazy. But I like that he takes the game seriously."
The way the Tigers practice gives Su little choice. Six days a week, the grind begins at an outdoor track with six quarter-mile laps made up of 100-yard sprint-jog intervals. The midmorning session is full-court one-on-one drills or weightlifting. Scrimmages and fastbreak drills take up a couple more hours in the afternoon. Practice runs against outside competition are rare.
The regimen is as antiquated as the senior team's is advanced. It is based on what Zhang endured when he played for a physical-education college 20 years ago. Although Western influences are slowly seeping into China's culture, the sports structure still reflects the Soviet model. And because the hierarchy of authority is clear, Li has no input into how Zhang, who is 43 and has led the junior team for the past eight years, runs the young Tigers.
No progress charts are kept during weightlifting sessions, no one times the rest intervals between reps, no one checks a shooter's form. One 20-minute stretch consists of the entire team chucking up stand-still threes at one basket while Su works alone on keeping the ball high as he turns and shoots three-footers off the glass at another. Later, to hone their free throws, two or three players stand along the foul line and shoot at the same time.
Zhang rarely stops the action. Lazy one-handed passes, unbalanced shots and poor spacing go uncorrected. Keeping the players moving trumps demonstrations of proper technique. By far, the most individual attention Su has ever received was at a month-long stint at the basketball academy in Oregon two summers ago. There, Li, a former CBA forward, worked with him every day after practice.
The personal touch isn't all the United States has over China. Facilities at the Sports Institute are an odd mix. The tartan track is in decent shape and the weightlifting pavilion contains every piece of equipment imaginable. But the basketball court desperately needs refinishing and the lighting is awful.
That still puts it ahead of the air quality. Guangzhou is the country's biggest manufacturing center; a blanket of soot covers every surface each morning and a perpetual haze keeps the sun a vague rumor. The institute occupies a quiet, leafy stretch along the Pearl River, but Su can neither hear nor see the water from his dorm room. He goes weeks without being allowed off campus.
The team lives in a dank, grimy, two-story dormitory built in the 1950s. There's a single communal bathroom, no screens on the windows, no AC, no carpeting. The entertainment center is a flat-screen television with PlayStation. The dilapidated couch is the main piece of furniture. Players, three to a room, wash their own gear and hang it up to dry in the hallways above rows of well-worn hoops shoes. Whatever light penetrates the haze is stopped cold by the dripping shorts.
A secrecy pervades the institute, which is why Su's first interview with The Mag in December 2004 was a cell phone call made from a nearby hotel. The campus was on three-month lockdown-no one in, no one out-for Dong Xun, a training period to prepare for the country's national games each October. (Another three-month lockdown, Xia Xun, is called each summer.) There's also a pretense of treating each athlete equally, which is why the Tigers allowed us access for this story only on the premise that it was to be written about the program, not Su Wei. "The junior team objective is not to develop stars," Zhang says, "but to develop the entire team."
The team, in turn, becomes the player's life. In the past three years Su has been home twice, each time for a stretch of 10 days. His parents, Su Xin Gao and Cai Huai Mei, have never visited. "I miss them," Su says. The last time he went home, he saw his 10-month-old niece, Su Ran, for the first time and ate as much of his mom's deep-fried fish with black bean sauce as he could get down. But he feels a distance. "Home isn't the same, because I'm used to living at the Sports Institute," he says. "It's warmer here and I like the routine. If I was dropped from the Tigers, I'd try to go to school in Beijing. I like Beijing."
His first visit to China's capital was seductive. When the NBA held its Basketball Without Borders camp in July 2005, Su was one of 14 Tigers to make the trip, even though he'd been sidelined with a sore right foot for several months. The pain got so bad that on the first day he got up at 4 a.m. to stand in line at Beijing Hospital No. 3 to have his foot checked. No X-rays were taken. Diagnosis: sprained joint. He tried to play, but 10 minutes into the first camp session he sat down. Soon after, Su hobbled into the training room, where the camp's American athletic trainer was stunned by the height of the big man's arches. "He needs orthotics," the trainer said. "Or flat feet."
The trainer taped the arches and Su toughed out the afternoon scrimmages. "This camp can do good things for me," he said. "I want to play."
The next day offered mentoring from NBA stars.
Su posted up 76ers center Sam Dalembert and took an entry pass from Yao Ming. Three times he tried to shake Dalembert. Finally, Su launched a fadeaway jumper. The smack of hand against leather reverberated through the gym. When it was Su's turn to defend, Yao showed him how to deny an entry pass. "Before I went to the NBA, I didn't know how to front either," Yao says. "We never had to. He'll be okay. He has a good body."
Su limped off after two hours, but he was not alone. Nine of the 14 players failed to finish the day's workouts. And despite his foot problem, Su was one of 20 selected for the camp's all-star game.
With the 2008 Summer Olympics scheduled for Beijing, Chinese authorities suddenly have become receptive to new ideas. Mavericks assistant coach Del Harris, who coached China in the last Olympics, says they need to play more competition outside of Asia. Maybe that explains the baby step that brought the Tigers' junior team to Canada.
But China's basketball evolution will certainly be too slow to build the skills of Su and the rest of the junior Tigers. Bad habits are already being ingrained, years and energy already wasted. To make matters worse, future life choices are being compromised as well. The Tigers are able to train all day because their class time has been truncated to 10 hours a week. In China, you can't play for a university and go pro after; classroom demands are too great, college hoops talent too inferior. But if you wash out early with a junior team, you can still play on a lower-level team at a university. And that might be better than going pro, anyway, because multiyear contracts don't exist. Get seriously injured and menial labor awaits. Job-market competition is fierce, the slide from relative comfort to scraping by steep.
Su is fortunate. He can fall back on his family's building-materials business, but that's a last resort. These days, he says, his goals are: "Fulfill my potential. Be all that I can be. Express myself."
It's a worthy dream. As basketball in China stands now, it's also a futile one.