The thunderous sound of cheering at Shanghai’s Baoshan Sport Center on Saturday provided yet more proof that the Pac-12’s annual Chinese showcase is a trip well worth making for the US college basketball program.
The Colorado Buffaloes defeated the Arizona State Sun Devils 81-71 in the fifth edition of the event. It’s the fifth straight year that the conference has staged an opening-week contest in China, with the Pac-12 still the only American sports league, collegiate or professional, to host a regular-season contest here.
The game is at the center of the Pac-12 Global initiative – designed to “foster cultural exchange through sport” – and it all started with a conversation between Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and Joe Tsai, co-founder and executive vice-chairman of e-commerce giants Alibaba.
Tsai is one of China’s most passionate basketball fans – as his ownership of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets would attest – and he believes that sport is one way people from different nations can find common ground.
“Alibaba’s business is mainly in China but we are listed in the US and we have an obligation to ensure that young people from the two countries have a platform on which to exchange with each other,” said Tsai. “Communication between young people from different countries is important, opportunities like this game are important. I have seen in China parents think that sports and education are separate but on the playground, on the court, you can learn a lot of values.”
Saturday’s clash between the Buffaloes and the Sun Devils was the fifth edition of the Pac-12’s now annual visit to China, as the American college basketball organization continues to spread its reach into the country.
Basketball is the perfect platform through which to do so, given it remains the most popular sport in China, 17 years since the towering force that is Yao Ming first lit up the NBA for the Houston Rockets.
The locally-born-and-raised Hall of Famer was courtside at the Baoshan Stadium on Saturday, taking in the action among the thousands of fans, with countless millions more tuning in via ESPN2 in the United States and YouKu Sports across China.
Yao has been among the staunch supporters of the Pac-12 initiative, along with the Alibaba Group and the Federation of University Sports in China (FUSC), as each year two American college teams have kicked off their season in Shanghai. The week leading up to the game sees the visiting student athletes shown the sites, playing exhibition games against local teams and attending meet-and-greets which this year included a look inside the future of global e-commerce hosted by Alibaba and by Tsai.
Come game time and they were fully focused on winning, and on the season ahead, as shown by Colorado’s impressive performance. The Buffaloes had kicked out to a 42-29 lead by halftime, and then saw off a spirited Sun Devils comeback that had scores tied at 52-52 with 10 minutes left in the second half.
But college veteran Wright showed his considerable poise – and talent – in scoring eight of his points in the final 10 minutes and Colorado head coach Tad Boyle looked pleased with the all-round effort of a team picked by many to go deep into the NCAA Tournament this season.
“It was a hard-fought victory, that’s for sure,” Boyle said. “Give Arizona State credit. They came out and played with great energy, especially in the second half. It was a great week. Winning makes this trip all worthwhile. I’m really proud of our guys.”
Scott had stressed that the annual trips to the Middle Kingdom were about basketball, sure, but they were also about expanding the horizons of the people involved from both sides of the planet.
“It gives people from different countries the chance to know one another and to learn from one another,” said Scott. “It’s exciting to think where we can go from here. [Pac-12] universities believe in an increasingly connected world and athletics can play an important role in the globalization of our universities. Sport is a universal language and a great way for people to connect. Sport can open many doors.”
The day before the game had seen another edition held of the now-annual China-US University Sports and Education Summit, staged at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.
It featured discussions on collaborations in education between China and the US as well as the role athletics can play in communities. Delegates heard that there now were more than 30,000 Chinese students studying across Pac-12 campuses, and that, increasingly, emerging Chinese athletes were looking to combine their sports with their education. That’s in fitting with President Xi Jinping’s push for his country to become more involved in sport, on a daily basis.
“Sports education in the US has played a very important role in building the character of students,” said Xue Yanqing, senior vice-president of FUSC. “We want to trigger [Chinese] students’ interest in sports. Through sports we want to cultivate their comprehensive character.”
Former China national team stalwart Wang Libin is these days president of the Basketball Association of Shaanxi Province and he explained how he’d seen first-hand how playing team sports had impacted on lives away from the stadiums and playing fields.
“You learn about mutual understanding and friendship,” said Wang. “China is now opening up to these ideas and encouraging more people to become involved in sports.”
While Arizona State failed to pick up the win in Shanghai, the university’s president Dr Michael Crow said he believed the visit would have a life-long impact on the players.
“The only way we’ll advance as a species is if we have a deeper understanding of each other,” said Dr Crow. “Partnerships like this one are certainly helping that, while improving the growth of the game of basketball.”
There are already signs that US colleges are dipping in to the talent rising out of China.
Pre-event in Shanghai came the announcement that the 2020 Pac-12 China Game will feature the University of Washington and Tulane University, where Shenyang-born Kevin Zhang is in his sophomore season.
Son of Wang Fang – Olympic silver medalist, national coach and arguably the greatest player the women’s game in China has seen – the 21-year-old Zhang was leading scorer for the Green Wave in his first season and is now one of five Chinese players in the NCAA’s Division 1. There are also currently 100 Chinese coaches working with their counter-parts in the Pac-12.
“We’re a small university but our population of Chinese students is growing and that’s making us a better university,” said Tulane’s director of athletics Troy Dannen. “Kevin is a wonderful student and to come back here next year is very important thing for him and for our university.”
For the Pac-12’s Scott the hope was that the initiative might resonate with future players either in the audience in Shanghai, or even watching on from home. For their part Alibaba will not only support the Pac-12 game through 2020 but will over the next four years distribute more than 175 Pac-12 events across China through its linear and digital platforms.
“There were several players today who have a dream of going on and playing in the NBA,” he said. “Hopefully there is inspiration today not only for young players but their families to see that you can get one of the most valuable academic degrees available in the United States and still have the opportunity of pursuing your dream as an athlete.”