Hoop City

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Photograph for TIME by Daniele Dainelli / Contrasto

Reaching for Glory
Amid Shanghai's new skyscrapers, young men spend an early summer afternoon playing pickup basketball in a friendly yet competitive atmosphere

For decades in the U.S., it has been called the "city game." All you need is a ball and a rim and some asphalt and you can play — all day and all night. You can practice by yourself or play with nine other players. The playgrounds in the inner cities of America are open to all comers. It doesn't matter where you're from or what you look like, whether you play for the L.A. Lakers or just got out of prison. If you can play, just show up and prove it. The rule on the playground is simple: winner stays on, loser sits.

That same ethos now extends to urban landscapes across the world's most populous nation. Basketball may not yet be China's most popular sport, but it's getting there. The public courts in Shanghai and Beijing are more crowded than ever now. Show up at a court on a fine Saturday morning in the spring and you can wait for an hour or more to get in a game.

That's what Zhou Qiang was doing this past April, at a playground not far from the Xujiahui area in central Shanghai. Dressed in a gold Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey, a baseball hat worn slightly askew and Nike high-tops, he's got the American hip-hop look of a baller down pat. He's 16 years old and started playing four years ago. "I come here sometimes four times a week," he says. "I like the game, I like the fact that it's a team game but that individual skills matter a lot. You can be creative and still be part of a team. And in order to keep playing here you have to win each time, so you have to be good."

China's professional league, the China Basketball Association, has 16 teams, and attendance and TV ratings for its games have risen steadily over the past 10 years. Basketball in China developed a higher profile when homegrown athletes showed they could star in the world's toughest league: the NBA, which plans to open a chain of retail outlets on the mainland in coming years, starting with a flagship store in Beijing. The success of Yao Ming, the towering center of the Houston Rockets, and now Yi Jianlian, the 7-ft. (2 m) forward for the Milwaukee Bucks, sends the message to kids on the playground that there's no limit to where they can end up if they're good enough.

The high school Zhou attends doesn't have a team yet — though the number of schools that do is increasing — so he says the best players from his class come to this playground "all the time" to test themselves against other kids (and the occasional stray foreigner). Zhou smiles a little slyly when asked what his parents think of him spending all his time on the basketball court. After all, at about 5 ft. 9 in. (1.75 m), he's not exactly a Yao Ming-like freak of nature destined for the NBA. "They wonder what I am doing, why I am not studying," he says. "It might be a little annoying to them."

There is, in this Saturday morning tableau, the hint of a little freedom, of individual preferences expressed, plucked from a global menu of possibilities. Chinese kids Zhou's age don't have political freedom, but they are a lot freer in many ways than their parents ever were. Think of it: hordes of Chinese kids on a spring Saturday, mimicking the moves not only of their local hoop heroes, but also of Kobe and D-Wade and T-Mac, vigorously debating whether China has any chance to beat the U.S. at this summer's Olympics in Beijing (Zhou shakes his head, saying, "No, unfortunately. No chance'').

We shall see. Meantime, the ball's in, folks. Let's play.

With reporting by Lin Yang/Beijing