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Olympics Highlights China's Hoop Dreams

The U.S. basketball team's easy victory over the home team at the Olympics did not diminish Chinese enthusiasm for the sport. Basketball was introduced into China by Catholic missionaries in the early 1900's. But it was in the 1990's that the U.S. National Basketball Association, or NBA, began to cultivate China's potential market of 1.3 billion people. As VOA's Brian Padden reports, today the popularity of the NBA, particularly among young Chinese, rivals that of football (soccer) and even ping pong. And the Chinese idolize their home-grown NBA player, Yao Ming, who plays for the Houston Rockets.

On an sunny afternoon at the Dongdan sports facility in Beijing, hundreds of young Chinese are, in basketball terminology, driving to the hoop (basket), kicking (passing) it out to the open man and hitting nothing but net (scoring goal without hitting the backboard or rim).

Liu Run says he and his friends like the competitive nature of the sport and the image of basketball superstars, particularly. "We like Yao Ming!" he says.

Liu Zhibin says he and all his friends have been playing basketball and watching in U.S. National Basketball Association or NBA games on television for as long as he can remember.

"The NBA is the biggest game in the world and the best players go into the NBA," Zhibin said." We are really interested in the NBA. Everybody started watching it and starting playing it."

And Wei Peng says basketball appeals to women as well as men. "Girls are not weaker than boys!" she says emphatically.

As China has developed economically, the popularity of basketball among young Chinese has grown. And it is no accident. The NBA has been running basketball clinics in China for over a decade. Today the number of people who play basketball in China is equal to the entire population of the United States. NBA retail sales this year in China are projected to grow by 40 percent. And surprisingly, the best selling basketball jersey in China is not Yao Ming's but American Kobe Bryant's, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Susan Brownell, an anthropologist with the University of Missouri, says the popularity of the NBA attests to the appeal of western culture, but also reinforces the image of a modern China. "It came to symbolize China taking its place on the world stage as a strong nation among other strong nations," Brownell said.

China's competitiveness in Olympic basketball competition is a source of great pride. Yao Ming who plays for the NBA's Houston Rockets is a national hero. Kobe Bryant credits Yao Ming for making basketball popular in Asia.

"I think what he's done is open the market in Asia to look at you know a Tracy McGrady [Yao's Houston teammate] or at a Kobe Bryant or all these other [NBA] players and I think it's because of him. He's opened up that door," Bryant said.

Even if the Chinese basketball team does not win a medal at these Olympics, the hoop (basketball) dreams of this nation will continue to grow.