LESS than 30 minutes before lunchtime, six Chinese villagers playing basketball can be seen concentrating on a tense three-on-three match-up amid spontaneous bursts of applause.
The players, along with fascinated spectators, are locals in Gezhuang Village, Suning County in north China’s Hebei Province. Almost every one in the 1,700-resident village — from 7-year-old kids to seniors in their 70s — play basketball, said Li Haibo, the village chief.
Gezhuang’s basketball story began as early as 1973, when a primary school teacher working there assembled a team with his pupils.
“Back then, they had only a wooden board hanging on a tree with an iron hoop and a second-hand basketball for practice,” Li recalled.
With no money to buy jerseys, the young players were bare-chested in summer and wore sweaters in winter for practice, but the tough going did not prevent them from having fun while also practising their skills.
The Gezhuang team won the county’s student basketball tournament only months after its establishment.
In an even more inspiring feat, it became a grassroots dream team by taking three consecutive titles at Cangzhou’s biennial game from 1975 to 1979, and winning the provincial championship in Hebei a year later.
Gradually since that time, basketball has spread in popularity across the village, Li said. “Villagers started to adopt a positive attitude toward basketball, and playing the game has become a habitual thing among them.”
Gezhuang has come a long way since basketball’s early days. It now boasts a standard plastic-floored court with 320 seats and six lamps. Ge Jiamai, 66, who has played basketball for over 40 years, said he never thought there would be such a great court only steps away from his house.
“I often go to the court to shoot some balls after finishing my farm work or join others to play four-on-four,” added Ge, as he took a break after a shoot-around.
Since the court was completed in 2014, in addition to meeting the demand from locals, it has also been used for three years in a row to host invitational matches that brought together Gezhuang’s team and squads from neighboring counties and cities.
Wu Wanjie, 53, who lists Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry as one of his favorite players, appeared on court last year as a substitute point guard for Gezhuang. “Though it was a village game, it was attended by strong competitors and overseen by national-level referees, attracting thousands of spectators combined during the six-day event,” Wu recalled.
It felt like half of Suning County came to watch our matches, and there were far too few seats to accommodate visiting fans. “I will resume training next month and I hope that I can make some good passes this year.”
Li said the 2017 season is scheduled to kick off in May. “The event is now a big deal for our whole county,” he stressed.
‘Village of Basketball’
The decades-old grassroots basketball culture in Gezhuang has made its villagers more than just a part of the story; they have been its direct beneficiaries.
In 1979, Gezhuang was honored by Hebei as a provincial “Village of Basketball” for its achievements in basketball education, training and promotion. Since then, it has kept a senior team and a youth team amid ongoing efforts to facilitate the sport’s development.
Because of this, many young locals with athletic ability are offered opportunities to leave the village to do things like serve in the military, work in government institutions or private enterprises, or embark on other careers related to basketball.
There are fewer villagers who gamble or drink as a result of playing basketball, while many have installed cable TV at home in order to watch NBA and CBA games, noted Li Zongqun, a 66-year-old player for Gezhuang’s senior team.
Basketball unites the whole village, he added. “Many tough issues were tackled because senior players stepped forward to take the lead.”
As the village chief, Li Haibo understands basketball holds the key to Gezhuang’s development. He said a basketball museum and a basketball theme park will be built in the village in coming years.
“Youth training is another inseparable part of our efforts,” he said. “With the help of Suning County Middle School, Gezhuang is also planning to build a basketball school so that future generations can have more access to this fascinating sport.”