In Naismith's day, the Y represented muscular outbound Protestantism whose good works had long made headway in the country. With that tailwind, basketball took off, being ideally suited to the scantily resourced Chinese because all they needed to play was a ball and a basket.
That was well before Mao, of course. When he came, communists had other ideas: fun for fun's sake was out. Basketball had to be under state supervision and serve a higher social purpose. Soon the game was aimed to inculcate a communist spirit of cooperative development.
But at another level, sports became a diplomatic priority. It was important that the communist cooperative spirit be seen by the world as successful. And in diplomacy, as in war, it is not how you play but whether you win or lose.
But in those years, the Chinese produced few top athletes, convulsed as they were with events like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Still, basketball was something the Chinese were good at. So the National Sports Ministry began to encourage basketball players to procreate. Such a union begat Yao Ming. Any suitably tall kid they found was taken off to a barracks where a harsh, no-fun training regime was enforced six days a week.
The People's Liberation Army grabbed tall kids too and, under the hush-hush veil of national security, in one case kidnapped tall 14-year-olds from the arms of distraught mothers. Such is the fascinating story of Yao Ming's erstwhile rival Wang Zhizhi, who went from boot camp all the way to America's National Basketball Association.
Yao Ming, a Shanghai boy who grew to 7'6", didn't like basketball, and it was a long time before he was any good at it. But he was bred for it, and his job was to keep growing. The Shanghai Sharks team would take care of his training.
Yao was the son of two basketball stars in the China league, his mum Da Fang more so than his dad, who was a less notable player, but both were tall. From Yao's birth, sports authority doctors were checking him every other week. Soon it was clear he was not so much a kid, but a national project.
Meanwhile, Beijing's Wang, who grew to 7'1", had been taken under the PLA's wing and made to play the game with an eye to joining the dominant Bayi Rockets army side, which he eventually did.
By the late 1990s, China was opening up, and tapes and DVDs of American NBA games were smuggled in and watched by basketball fans, but more importantly, by state players and their coaches.
Officialdom was flummoxed. On one hand the officials wanted to win, on the other, their aims of elevating social objectives were being set against NBA individualism. Larmer says that China's state sports agencies remain the Alamo of classic communist thinking, long abandoned elsewhere in the system.
Soon Nike sportswear came calling and wanted to use Yao as a promotional tool, which of course involved negotiations with the Shanghai Sharks and sports officials, who saw it as a source of funding. The cherry on the sundae for Yao was the enthusiasm shown for his playing skills by competent American judges, and he started dreaming of one day playing in the NBA. Something similar happened to Wang Zhizhi.
So, two steps forward and one step back, Yao and Wang lurched down the road towards America. Wang was the first to go. Yao was upset, but soon picked himself up, and increased his standing both politically and on the court in national tournaments.
Before long, both were plying their trade in the NBA and the book also details the seamy deals of product sponsorships with the government getting a more than generous slice. Yao and Wang were even ordered to report in for summer games in China rather than attending NBA summer camps, which offered better opportunities for them to sharpen their skills.
Without spoiling the tale, and it is a good one, let us say that Wang defected and was made persona non grata in China. His game soon sagged and he became a second-rate player in America, while Yao remained in top form and on good terms with Beijing.
At first the author is a bit full of himself, but Larmer brings home the bacon, so much is forgiven. He has an unfortunate habit of using words incorrectly, but to be fair, these occurrences happen less often (the "miasma of psychosis" is recalled) as he warms to his tale, and thankfully becomes less focused on the technique of its telling.
Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar, by Brook Larmer, published by Gotham, list price: US$26.00