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Who comes after Yao?


Since Yao Ming’s retirement from the NBA in 2011, I’ve wondered when we might see the next Chinese giant spinning hook shots. From a country of 1.3 billion people it seems inevitable, right? Then again, scouting for the next Yao could take years.

A small sample of China’s up-and-coming basketball talent was on display at the Youth Olympics in Sydney recently, where a three-on-three competition was staged, fittingly, at the foot of the city’s Chinatown. So, while throwing down a bowl of spicy hokkien noodles, I saw the future of Chinese basketball cast shadows over portable Huffy hoops. It was both frightening and thrilling. 

Team China, in pristine white uniforms, casually made jump shots as if playing for stuffed blue bears at a county fair. Their lay-ups were easy too, dropping into the cup without touching the rim. These players had size and poise, and I hadn’t seen such effortless inside touch since Luc Longley ran with the Bulls. 

But what stunned most onlookers about the impressive warm-up display was that the squad’s tallest men, each around six-foot-six, shoved dunks through the basket like Shaq with a Nerf ball. Just to increase the degree of difficulty, they would toss the ball at the backboard, seemingly without gauging the rebound, catch it in their palm, and throttle it---not with aggression---but nonchalance. It was all so incidental, like a certain Celtics legend coaching with a cigar hanging from his lips.

Just ahead of their fixture with Indonesia---a markedly shorter group---the courtside announcer cancelled the game due to the excessive heat. I wasn’t surprised: the 115-degree air had disintegrated my yogurt-covered breakfast bar into sweaty fistful of granola. I rubbed my sticky hands down the front of my shorts and wandered over to the court to enquire about the rest of the afternoon games. A crimson-faced woman said she hoped the teams might be back in couple of hours, presumably when the rubber court had congealed after melting.

The Chinese giants, Yuchen Zou, Fan Zhang, Qi Zhou and Bo Liu, scooped up their gear while simultaneously pouring bottles of iced water over their simmering heads. They stomped out of the sun into a tent by the bleachers. I wanted so desperately to follow them, to ask how many points they expected to trounce the Indonesians by. But I sat breathless instead, sipping my warm Pepsi, hoping they might soon reappear. 

Meanwhile, the team from Guam collapsed under some trees by the nearby gardens, squirting water into their mouths, staring ahead blankly, burning a hole in the ground in front of them. They maybe wondered if swimming at these Games would have been more fun. 

A girl from the British women’s team keeled over with a damp Union Jack handkerchief over her head, while the tournament crew, down on their haunches now, trepidly felt the ground. Their jaws agape, it was clearly hot enough to melt the soles of sneakers. At least traveling violations wouldn’t be an issue if play resumed.

Sydney summers are usually marked by patio parties, scantily-clad tourists, and the smell of bushfires. But it’s never been this hot. city once deemed to have hosted the best Olympic Games ever, soared into the record books this particular day, posting a number that sounded more like the Oklahoma City Thunder’s points average on any given West Coast swing. 

And so the sight of players intermittently jogging over to the drinks tent, only to return cradling a half-dozen plastic bottles of water, was about as close to a fast break as we might see, I thought.

At four o’clock the air thinned slightly, but that’s like saying Cleveland is feeling better about LeBron James U-Hauling his talents to Florida. The players in their warm-up tops, close to overheating, emerged curiously, like space men down the ladder to a new surface. Kids dunked their heads into nearby fountains, practically fighting the swooping ibises for space. The smoky aroma from the grill of the local Brazilian barbecue house wafted by my nostrils, and yet nobody was in the mood for skewered cow rump. Go figure.

With the clouds rolling in and the blaze easing, the prospect of a game piqued interest once more. Fans had milled about all afternoon, scoffing gelato, wondering the gardens, unleashing the kids into the neighboring parks and water features. On account of the wild conditions, holiday schedules had been abandoned, dad’s Griswold rules revised, and mom dreamed about the air-conditioning at Zara.

The Chinese giants were back on court limbering up. They mostly shot three-pointers now, even the taller players, no doubt weary of preserving energy, but also any dryness left in their jerseys. The Indonesians joined them, and as all eight players (substitutes too) rained down jump shots, a few large drops from the sky splashed onto the court. The heavens were being merciful but the timing was vexing. The crowd moaned, but momentarily laughed away the threat of another interruption as the court side DJ queued up The Trammps’ Disco Inferno. In context, truer words were never spoken than “Burn Baby Burn”. 

Finally the ref whistled the game on. 

The Indonesians certainly gave away size, and yet, here they were scrapping for every ball and shooting well from around twenty feet. They were in this contest, I believed, until the giants assumed an indefensible inside stance. 

And so the ball was lobbed into them repeatedly, and they never looked back---hooking and hopping all over their opponents, who surely wished for another delay. A thunderstorm, perhaps. Well, that arrived too, but not before these human sequoias uprooted the hopes of their opponents, and awed the crowd, both groups gasping for air the rest of the afternoon.


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