Yao Ming, chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association, is championing a nationwide mini-basketball program that benefits kids both on and off the court. XINHUA
Hoops giant Yao Ming knows it's the little things that make the difference when it comes to kids' crucial first steps on the basketball court.
The very embodiment of how the game can bridge cultures and build character, NBA legend Yao is a strong believer in the sport's educational value in a country where an estimated 300 million people regularly dribble and hoop.
While busy overseeing the tip-off of the new CBA season last week, Yao was also tending to the game's grassroots development at a forum to exchange ideas and views with educators, scholars and media on the implementation of his national "mini-basketball" program.
"Our expectation for the program is not just to deepen and expand the sport's talent pool but, more importantly, to teach students life lessons that classroom study cannot," said CBA chairman Yao, who initiated the project in 2017.
Mini-basketball features smaller balls, lower rims and more accessible courts on campus and after-school facilities, as well as rules customized for under-12s, such as mixed-gender games, no 3-point shooting and no shot clock.
A national league for the mini game saw over 186,000 students from 24,862 teams participate in competitions across three age groups, from under-8s to under-12s, in 2019, up 86 percent and 62 percent year-on-year respectively.
Yao, also a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, filed an official proposal to the top political advisory body in 2018, urging the sport's governing body and the education authorities to team up to help facilitate the expansion of the program.
The collective effort was highlighted by the launch of two coaching guidance books, for the 3-6 and 7-12 age groups respectively, at last week's forum.
The coaching methods featured in the books are tailored to appeal to preschool and primary-school children by focusing on discipline, teamwork and etiquette.
"It should be interest-driven and fun to play, while we try to avoid getting kids involved in the technical part too early," said Zhang Shouwen, an associate professor in preschool education from the Capital Normal University in Beijing.
The books, which also touch on facility standards and training coaches, are intended to serve as a guidance manual for PE teachers, trainers at youth sports clubs and parents.
"Hopefully, the books can help not just school teachers but even grandpas and grandmas to become qualified mini-basketball coaches in the community," said Yao, who was elected CBA chief in early 2017, six years after retiring from the NBA due to a foot injury.
Promotion of the program has continued to gain momentum online this year despite the league competitions being called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since launching in May, an online basketball challenge entitled "I am the Teenage King of Dribbling" has been a huge hit on social media, with the thousands of dribbling videos uploaded by children on Douyin attracting over 18 million views.
Several pro stars, including CBA guard Guo Ailun, forward Zhai Xiaochuan and women's national team captain Shao Ting－as well as Yao himself－uploaded their own moves to help get the ball rolling.
"The online skills challenge carries on the excitement of the program even though we could not hold any actual games offline due to the outbreak of the coronavirus," CBA vice-chairman Xu Minfeng told Xinhua earlier this year.
Xu predicted that by 2025 a million kids will be participating in the mini program to form a solid base of China's basketball pyramid and ultimately feed the pro ranks with young talent.
"Although we are rolling out the program to primarily popularize the sport, I think in the long term it could contribute to China's basketball development on the elite stage," Xu said.
"If more children fall in love with this sport, we have a better chance of discovering future basketball stars among them."
The CBA has already created a big-data system to track and digitize the performances of all the young participants, with annual evaluations identifying exceptional talent for elite development.