The village basketball games that are a national obsession in China

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TAIPAN, China — It’s game day in this remote village in southwestern China, and the atmosphere is electric.

Before thousands of fans on an outdoor court tucked in the rugged hills of Guizhou province — and with millions more watching online — teams from across China are vying to become champions of the “CunBA,” a grassroots version of the National Basketball Association whose name is a play on the Chinese word “cun,” which means “village.”

Basketball is hugely popular in China, where the NBA continues to broadcast games despite past political controversies. China also has its own professional men’s league, the Chinese Basketball Association, although recent allegations of corruption and match-fixing have put off many fans.

Some see a purer version of the sport in the CunBA, which has become something of a national obsession, with Taipan proclaiming itself the capital. Games are livestreamed on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, where they are viewed by millions of fans who may never have heard of this tiny village in one of the country’s poorest provinces.

They have even drawn NBA stars such as Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler, who visited Taipan last July.

China grassroots basketball (NBC News)
China grassroots basketball (NBC News)

The players are amateurs, admission is free and the stands are packed with fans snacking on noodles, sunflower seeds and meat skewers.

The fans come in all ages and are mostly locals or from nearby provinces — there are farmers as well as women dressed in the traditional clothing of the Miao ethnic minority, some carrying babies on their backs. They wave clappers and bang pots and pans, cheering for their teams in various Chinese dialects and holding umbrellas in the rain, while announcers cheer every dribble, drive and dunk.

There are no big contracts or sponsorships here. In fact, none of the players are paid. Instead, the winning teams are rewarded with roasted meat, local delicacies and even cows and other live animals.

Sam Chen, 27, has been playing basketball for 10 years, but this is his first year in the CunBA. He is part of a 12-person team representing his hometown of Dalang in the southern province of Guangdong.

China Grassroots Basketball (Janis Mackey Frayer / NBC News)
China Grassroots Basketball (Janis Mackey Frayer / NBC News)

“It’s very special for us to represent our village to show our talent in basketball,” said Chen, a cook whose favorite NBA team is the Lakers.

Long Chen, 43, a teacher from the nearby city of Kaili who came to watch the games, said they were “a way for everyone to get together.”

Asked which team he supported, he said, “Every team, I suppose.”

Taipan has been hosting annual basketball tournaments for decades, but in recent years they have started to draw spectators from further afield.

For big games like the finals in October, teams and fans drive from hundreds of miles away, swelling the population of Taipan from 1,200 to more than 20,000. Those who can’t get into the stands watch the games on large screens outside.

China grassroots basketball (NBC News)
China grassroots basketball (NBC News)

A whole tourist economy has sprung up around the games as a result. A new CunBA hotel is under construction, and a bustling street full of food vendors leads up to the court entrance. A market is being set up to promote local specialties and Miao artifacts, and a souvenir shop sells hats, keychains, jerseys and other merchandise.

Though Sam Chen said he once had dreams of playing in the NBA, for now he is proud to represent his hometown in China’s village league.

“I’ve thought of this in my very young age,” he said, “but now I just participate in the CunBA with my brothers and show my talent.”

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