CHANGSHA – China was the only country to wind up unbeaten at the 28th FIBA Asia Championships that ended here last Saturday and after booking the lone ticket to represent the region at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the goal is to figure prominently in the stakes for a podium finish.
China has participated in 10 Olympic basketball competitions since 1976. Its highest placing was eighth in 1996, 2004 and 2008. At the 2012 London Olympics, China was at the bottom of the ladder in 12th spot. The highest-ever finish for an Asian country in Olympic basketball was fifth in 1936 with the Philippines in Berlin. The Philippines has played in seven Olympic basketball tournaments but its last appearance was in Munich in 1972 when the team took 13th place.
Serbian Nenad Hrvoic, an assistant coach with the Jiangsu Tongxi club in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and a FIBA resource consultant, said China was well-armed for battle and wouldn’t settle for second place before an adoring homecrowd at the FIBA Asia Championships.
“The CBA playoffs ended in the third week of March so preparations for the FIBA Asia Championships started right after the finals,” said Hrvoic who was recently invited to assist in preparing the U18 Jiangsu provincial team for the Chinese National Games. “That gave China close to six months of preparation. The national team went to Italy, Russia and Serbia to play and train. Then, they played CBA teams, the national B-team and some of the players participated in an international competition in Suzhou. What is incredible with the Chinese team is there are 35 to 40 players in the national pool, every player with a high degree of ability. They rotate the players from team A to B and back. They have no difficulty forming a strong national team for any tournament.”
Hrvoic said national coach Gong Luming’s reemergence has been a positive development. Gong, 58, played with the national team at the 1988 Olympics and coached China at the 1996 Olympics, a rare accomplishment as a former Olympic player and coach. Gong had not coached the national team for nearly 20 years until his recent reappointment. But he has stayed active in Chinese basketball, working in the CBA as a front office executive in charge of registration and development.
“Coach Gong is very knowledgeable about basketball and extremely experienced,” said Hrvoic. “He is well-liked and a polite person. The players respect him.” For the FIBA Asia Championships, Gong was assisted by former national players Li Nan, Hu Xuefeng, Zhang Bin and Greek import Ioannis Christopoulous. Former China head coach Panagiotis Giannakis brought in Christopoulous when he called the shots for the national squad at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships in Manila. Giannakis was later fired but Christopoulous stayed with the national team.
China assembled a mix of Team A and B players in beating Iran, 54-47, for the International Basketball Challenge in Suzhou last July 27-Aug. 7. Among the players who saw action in Suzhou and Changsha were Zhao Ji Wei, Guo Ailun and Li Muhao. The tournament included teams from Italy, Iran, the US, Lithuania, Slovakia, Melbourne and Japan.
For the FIBA Asia Championships, Gong enlisted seven players who are 23 and less, making the national team relatively inexperienced. The seven were 6-1 Zhao, 20, 6-4 Guo, 21, 6-7 Ding Yangyuhang, 22, 6-8 Zhai Xiaochuan, 22, 7-2 Li, 23, 7-0 Wang Zhelin, 21, and 7-1 Zhou Qi. The others were 6-2 Liu Wei, 35, 6-6 Zhao Tailong, 25, 6-9 Zhou Peng, 25, 7-0 Yi Jianlian, 27 and Li Gen, 27. The average height was 6-8 and average age, 24. The team boasted of four players at least 7-foot tall.
During the FIBA Asia Championships, Gong often sent in Guo and Zhou Ji Wei to play together in the backcourt. They’re teammates with the Liaoning Flying Leopards squad in the CBA so they know each other well. Li Gen and Zhai were also teammates with the Beijing Ducks who won the CBA title last season. Li Gen will join Liu Wei, Zhou Qi and Gilas naturalized player Andray Blatche with the Xianjiang Flying Tigers in the CBA this year.
Former national player and coach Wang Fei, now a TV basketball commentator, said Gong took in Liu Wei for his experience. “We have a young team,” said Wang who played for China at the Asian Youth Championships in Manila in 1982. “Coach Gong picked Liu Wei as a stabilizer in the backcourt.” But in the final against the Philippines, Liu Wei never played.
China’s performance was a far cry from its fifth place finish at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships and at the Asian Games in Incheon last year. Only four players were retained from the 2013 edition – Guo, Zhou Peng, Yi and Wang Zhelin. And seven were carried over from the Asian Games lineup – Guo, Zhao Tailong, Ding, Zhai, Zhou Peng, Wang Zhelin and Zhou Qi. In 2013, China lost to Chinese-Taipei, 96-78, in the knockout quarterfinals while at the Asian Games, China bowed to Japan, 79-72, and Iran, 75-67, but beat the Philippines, 78-71, and got back at Chinese-Taipei, 59-58.
Guo, Yi and Zhou Qi made it to the FIBA Asia Mythical Five. Li Gen, who averaged 17.3 points and shot 46.1 percent from three-point distance in the CBA last season, was one of the crowd darlings at the FIBA Asia Championships with his showman antics. A rugged defender, the barrel-chested Li Gen repeatedly brought wild cheers from the crowd with his booming triples and the fist thump on his chest. Yi, the Milwaukee Bucks first round pick in 2007 and a five-year NBA veteran, was the team’s anchor and lived up to expectations with his dominant play on both ends. Balance was evident in Gong’s roster. The future is definitely now for the national team.