China crashes out of FIBA World Cup, but can still qualify for Tokyo

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

The Chinese men’s national basketball team made just about every error possible in a crushing overtime loss to Poland this week, and followed up with a limp loss in a must-win game against Venezuela to crash out of the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

Well, technically, they are not out of the tournament, but they have progressed (regressed?) to the ignominy of the 17-32 Classification stage instead of the Round of 16 (a.k.a. the second group stage).

A solitary win against Cote d’Ivoire in its opening game stands as China’s sole bright spot of what has been a desperately disappointing tournament, made all the more embarrassing given that China is hosting.

Official monitoring data from CSM Media Research shows 240 million people in China watched at least some part of the 24 games in the first group stage, but in the absence of star power from the U.S. team and few big names from the NBA elsewhere, those fans would have largely focused on China’s three games.

These results aren’t unexpected going by the form book: China, ranked No. 30 in the world, beat No. 64 Cote d’Ivoire and lost to No. 25 Poland and No. 20 Venezuela. But the Poland defeat was particularly stunning, considering China was up 10 after the first quarter before scoring only 10 points in the 2nd. It clawed back to hold a three-point lead with less than 30 seconds remaining, only to see things turn horribly wrong:

Every host nation expects — and usually receives — a significant bump in performance on home soil, and Group A was the weakest in the tournament. Things were set up for China to take advantage. But as it goes, it’s Poland that is the direct beneficiary: It has gone on to emerge from the second round of group play, taking a spot from an arguably more deserving team. It’s a travesty that — depending on this weekend’s results — one of U.S.A., Brazil, and Greece will not be playing in the quarterfinals.

It’s not often I’ll recommend a China Daily opinion piece, but this personal, somewhat hilarious take from sportswriter Shi Futian, titled “Toothless, timid travesty was truly tough to watch,” nicely sums up the combination of disbelief and anger felt throughout the country.

Several of my media colleagues couldn’t contain their emotions either, joining the fans’ chorus of disapproval and thumping the table in frustration. I heard the same sentence from journalists and fans many times: “Even my free throw is better than theirs.”

It’s difficult to understand how China’s big names, who have years of experience in the CBA and some even in the NBA, were unable to make the simplest of shots and execute basic defensive moves.

Yao Ming looked miserable throughout, a former player-turned-analyst broke down on air (see bottom), and fans were chanting for the coach to be sacked.

It wasn’t pretty.

There are too many issues with the current squad to detail here, but suffice to say, if you can’t shoot from the field or the free throw line, and your rebounding sucks, you’re not going to win too many games no matter who you play.

It’s the same old story: a pool of 1.4 billion people and few decent players.

But an outdated mentality, a total lack of patience from above, and crushing expectations from the public provided the same old outcome.

China was back in action on Friday night with a slender 77-73 win against No. 32 South Korea. Amazingly, the team can still punch its ticket to next year’s Olympics in Tokyo: all it has to do is beat No. 33 Nigeria on Sunday night (8 pm local time).

There is one Olympic spot open from this World Cup for the best Asian team (in addition to an automatic berth for hosts Japan), and with all six teams from the continent failing to qualify for the second group stage, a win against Nigeria on Sunday could provide a silver lining for Yao Ming and his charges.

China will, in all likelihood, qualify for the Olympics, but the U.S. Dream Team and other NBA stars will be back and ready to play — and, as a result, China’s fate in Japan could be even worse than this summer at home.


Now for some good news.

Chinese strawweight MMA fighter Zhāng Wěilì 张伟丽 (20-1) absolutely destroyed reigning champion Jessica Andrade (20-7) to become China’s first UFC world champion, as the promotion came to Shenzhen last weekend.

There had been some concern over whether two women in the 52kg range were enough of a draw to take top billing on the fight card, but the 42-second demolition by Zhang proved a massive highlight and sent the partisan crowd crazy.

Usually these one-sided encounters are the result of a deliberate mismatch by a promoter looking to pad a fighter’s stats, but Andrade is no stooge.

Described by MMA Mania as “one of the most intimidating female fighters in the world today,” one pre-fight poll on ESPN had more than 95 percent of fans predicting the Brazilian would retain her belt.

That belt now resides in China with Zhang, who lost the first professional fight of her career in 2013 but has since raved up 20 consecutive victories.

Most of those have come in the Chinese kickboxing series Kunlun Fight, and it’s rare that Zhang was given a title shot just 12 months after switching to the more well-known UFC.

But rest assured that many more fans globally will be watching her fifth UFC fight, possibly on U.S. soil — whether it’s a rematch against Andrade or against another challenger — though it’s in China where they’ll be watching in increasing numbers.

Double Olympic boxing champion Zōu Shìmíng 邹市明 was overhyped and underprepared when he was given a world title shot too soon after concluding his amateur career.

But no such mistakes have been made with Zhang and, if this form is anything to go by, she could rule the division for some time.

Zhang’s win is also the perfect shot in the arm for the UFC, who was late to the martial arts party in Asia but is now leading the pack there, as it does elsewhere.

MMA is still not exactly mainstream in China, but with some smart hires both in and out of the octagon, the UFC is pushing further toward sporting middle ground.

There was a memorable moment in Zhang’s immediate post-fight interview, during which she said, “My name is Zhang Weili. I’m from China. Remember me!”

Sports fans would do well to heed her words.


Also this week:

  • Wang Qiang reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the U.S. Open, but was dismissed 6-1, 6-0 in just 44 minutes by Serena Williams, who was simply too powerful.
  • ProPublica takes a look at how the costs to play baseball, golf, lacrosse, and basketball in the U.S. could all rise due to the ongoing U.S.-China trade war.
  • China’s world No. 3 chess maestro beat world champion Magnus Carlsen in a speed play-off in St. Louis, thanks to a stunning move.
  • Aussie basketball star Andrew Bogut continues to embrace Chinese fans online, as they continue to boo him on the court.
  • China reveals its plan to become a “modern sports power” by 2050.


Highlight of the Week:

And in this week’s video highlight we return to the FIBA Basketball World Cup, and China’s second game — a 79-76 loss to Poland in overtime, in which the team squandered a one-point lead with 7.2 seconds to go in regulation because it couldn’t successfully inbound the ball.

Former national team player Wáng Shìpéng 王仕鹏, now an analyst on TV, was so devastated by the manner of the loss that he started to sob live on air. One colleague consoled him, while another picked up the slack by filling the void, but the director left all three in shot — for your viewing pleasure below:

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina.