The marketing wizards at the National Basketball Association (NBA) like to talk about China as basketball's "final frontier." But the Middle Kingdom's fascination with hoops began long before an affable 7-foot, 6-inch giant named Yao Ming debuted with the NBA's Houston Rockets in 2002. China may not have invented the game, as some Chinese sports historians claim, pointing to the ancient pastime of shouju, a form of Han dynasty handball. But basketball did, in fact, land in China before it arrived in Houston, and only a few years after an eccentric Canadian named James Naismith invented the game in 1891.
From the beginning, basketball was destined to be a global sport -- and China its ultimate conquest -- for one serendipitous reason: Doc Naismith created the game at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) international training center in Springfield, Massachusetts, a place where young missionaries imbibed a vision of "muscular Christianity" before heading off to redeem the world. China was the biggest emerging market for souls to be saved, an empire of 400 million people in the waning years of the Qing dynasty. When YMCA missionaries arrived in the city of Tianjin in the 1890s carrying "The Thirteen Rules of Basketball," along with their Bibles, they believed that salvation would come through God and hoops, though not necessarily in that order.
More than a century later, another wave of Western evangelists has descended on the Middle Kingdom, preaching a glitzier gospel of globalization. Instead of Bibles and "The Thirteen Rules of Basketball," the foreigners who began trickling into China in the 1990s carried different symbols of their faith: the Nike swoosh, the NBA logo, highlight films of a miracle man named Michael Jordan -- all played to the hip-hop soundtrack of global youth culture. China, 1.3 billion strong, had finally emerged from decades of isolation and was hurtling into a dizzying economic boom. Hoping to crack the last great untapped market on Earth, the new evangelists peddled a vision of sports as entertainment, a pleasurable commodity that channeled the values of freedom, competition, and individual heroism. The Westerners put their faith in the power of athletic icons -- especially basketball stars -- to inspire the kind of emotional bond that would drive the Chinese masses to watch, cheer, and fill their homes with loads of really cool imported stuff.
Even as Chinese youth latch onto the emblems of hyper-capitalist Western sports culture, the new generation of Chinese leaders still sees sports not so much as business, recreation, or entertainment, but as a projection of national ambition, a yearning that is particularly powerful as Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games. China's massive socialist sports machine, modeled on the old Soviet system, may seem like an anachronism in the global economy; indeed, only Cuba and North Korea still have such "womb-to-tomb" programs. But the sports factories keep churning out world-class athletes who bring glory to the motherland, and Beijing is loath to stop the assembly line of champions. The system's successes, after all, serve as tangible evidence that China is once again standing tall in the community of nations.
The meeting of East and West -- China and the world -- will likely be the defining encounter of the 21st century. And perhaps no individual symbolizes this cosmic convergence more than Yao Ming. The life of the lantern-jawed 25-year-old star has been so thoroughly shaped by the two great forces of our time, China's explosive rise and the expansion of transnational capitalism, that he can truly be considered the child of globalization. Were it not for China's ambition to raise its international stature through sports, Yao's parents (both basketball players, 6 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches, respectively) never would have been forcibly recruited into the Chinese sports system and paired up in retirement to produce the next generation of giants. If Yao had been born anywhere else -- say, Chile, Chad, or even Chicago -- he would likely not have been pulled out of school and pressed into basketball camps at an early age. And he almost certainly would not have delighted the NBA as much as the Shanghainese center did when, after a protracted East-West tug-of-war over his fate, he was finally allowed to go to the United States in 2002.
When Yao scored his first basket in Houston, it was almost as if, by closing the circle, an electrical current bolted back and forth across the Pacific. Millions of his compatriots, indifferent to his fate before, now celebrate him as a patriotic icon who smashes the stereotype of the weak and diminutive Chinese and shows how China can compete against the best in the world. American fans, initially transfixed by his staggering height, have embraced his throwback personality -- the self-effacing humor, team-first attitude, blue-collar game -- and sent him to the All-Star Game for three straight years. The world's biggest multinationals, from Pepsi and Reebok to Visa and McDonald's, have also leaped at the chance to sign Yao to multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts. The corporate executives love Yao not simply because he is 7 feet, 6 inches, talented, and congenial, a squeaky-clean athlete in a sea of preening and misbehaving superstars. They want him, above all, because he is Chinese.