A sellout crowd of 13,599 jammed into the Taipei Arena on October 8, 2009 to witness an important date in Taiwan’s basketball history.
It was the day that a first-ever National Basketball Association game was held in Taiwan. Though it is just a pre-season exhibition game, the highly-anticipated showdown between two teams of the top-tier men's professional basketball league, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers, was joined by the historic number of fans.
The number is arguably one of the largest crowds ever to witness a single basketball game in the island nation.
The Pacers led by forward Danny Granger ultimately topped the Nuggets. But no one seemed to care about the game result but instead, via the worldwide broadcast, the world has witnessed Taiwanese enthusiasm about the sports even the country is renowned for producing some of the world’s best baseballers.
In fact, study shows that though baseball is the most-watched sports in Taiwan, basketball only slightly trailed behind. Moreover, it is interesting to note that only 0.1% of those who love watching baseball actually played the sports as shown in the same survey, while according to a 2008 report conducted by the Ministry of Education, basketball is the No.1 most-played sports by Taiwanese students of all ages.
The popularity of the sport and the country’s craziness over the hoop, in fact, has a long history way back to nearly one century ago when the Republic of China government, the official name of Taiwan, was still based in the Chinese Mainland.
Hoop games in ROC
The Republic of China was one of the earliest nations outside the United States, the originator of the sports, to fall in love to the sports involve with balls and basket hoops. Basketball was first introduced to the mainland in the end of 19th century in 1894 during the Chinese Qing Dynasty, thanks to an American missionary Bob Gailey in Tientsin, China at the YMCA there.
It did not take long before the games to be deep rooted in the Chinese mainland and other Asian countries. In the early stage of basketball development in East Asia, the ROC national squad had quite impressive performances in international competitions. In 1936, the ROC joined the Berlin Olympics basketball tournament for the first time after the nation was accepted by the international Amateur Basketball Federation earlier that year. The nation later joined another two summer Olympics and its best ranking was the 11th at the Melbourne in 1956.
Meanwhile at the same time, basketball also found its place in the island of Taiwan during the Japanese rule period (1895－1945).
The game of hoop was introduced to Taiwanese in 1922 with another American missionary Franklin H. Brown, who served in Japan as Honorary Physical Education Secretary of the National Committee of the YMCA.
According to local writer Chen Ro-Jin's (陳柔縉), Brown was invited here originally to serve as an instructor to teach field and track events. However, since Brown was the first person to bring basketball and volleyball to Japan, during his stay in the island, he taught a dozens of students how to play the sport in the Taipei New Park, which is today’s 228 Peace Memorial Park.
Interesting to note that, the park was also the place where the first official baseball game played on the island in March 1906. Yet, the sport was far less accepted by the islanders because they were busy playing their favorite baseball and tennis back then.
Basketball in Taiwan at its budding stage
Following the outbreak of Chinese civil-war and the ROC government led by late president Chiang Kai-shek arrived to govern the island, the sports that originally not widely-played by Taiwanese was boosted by the influx of massive military personnel who were madly in love with the basketball games.
There is even an old saying that goes "Taiwanese play baseball while the waishengren (mainlanders) play basketball.”
Junwei Yu, a National Taiwan Sports University professor, hinted in his English-language book on Taiwan baseball history books that the then ruling KMT government preferred promoting the sport of basketball over baseball, partly because the government is trying to get rid of anything related to Japanese, who brought baseball to Taiwan.
The new government started to build basketball fields and stadiums as well as organizing tournaments year around to encourage the sport.
Many of the very first official basketball courts with thousands of capacity were build by the military including the Tri-military basketball court (三軍球場), which was build right across the street of Presidential Office Building.
The completion of the Chungwha Arena (中華體育館) in 1963 that is build with state-of-the-art equipment as well as a huge capacity of 12000-plus crowd further boosted the popularity of basketball in Taiwan.
The government/military-backed promotion created the golden age of Taiwan’s basketball. From 1952 to 1973, Taiwan’s national teams, both men and women’s, frequently stood in the top four in all kinds of international events.
The good old days in the William Jones Cup
Unfortunately, Taiwan’s participation in the international basketball competitions came to a halt in 1974 when the International Basketball Federation decided to recognize the People’s Republic of China instead of ROC.
Losing its FIBA membership, Taiwan’s only chance to join international competition was the holding of exhibition games. That was the reason behind the birth of Williams Jones Cup tournament, the longest-running international basketball tourney in the island nation.
Named after basketball promoter and co-founders of the International Basketball Federation, Renato William Jones, the tournament was founded in 1977, three years after Taiwan was forced out off the FIBA under the pressure from Beijing. Ever since then, the Jones Cup was held annually.
For over three decades, the Jones Cup has become a breeding ground that not only produced many local hoops talents, it was also joined by many of the biggest names in the NBA and world basketball, including All-stars Karl Malone, Shawn Kemp, Kevin Johnson, Christ Mullin and Brazil women’s national squad star Hortencia as well as WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie.
During the days of international isolation when Taiwan had been being largely pushed aside by the resurgent PRC, the international tournament held in the nation also provided a perfect place to release their anxiety over the nation’s future and let one unleash their patriotism. Visiting teams were seen as rivals and a win and a loss meant more than just a game but concerning Taiwan’s national glory. The all-time-feuds for the home teams were usually the Koreans and Philippines, whom for many times turned the simple invitations into bench-clearing fights.
Whenever the Jones Cup invitations were held in the Chungwha Arena, games were literally packed to the walls.
Famous veteran sports broadcaster Fu Ta-jen (傅達仁) recalled that all the sides were sold out whenever local team played, and "you could not even hear the referees’ whistles if you sit at far back seats.”
Yet again, a tragedy happened to the sacred land of Taiwan hoop in 1988, a fire broke out and burned down the Arena which stood as a symbol for the local hoop players whom regard it as the Mecca. The cause of the fire remained unknown till today and the tournament later moved to be held in a much smaller stadium in Taipei City Physical Education College with only 3000 capacity.
With the changing of venue to a much smaller stadium, the original flavor of Jones Cup were ever lost and could not ignite the fanfare it used to enjoy.
In the 1980s, Taiwan managed to return to FIBA under the name Chinese Taipei. But the team remained mediocre with its best record of third place finish in the 1989 Asia Championships where in recent years it stayed mostly between five to 10 most of the time.
The female squads had a much better performance than their male counterparts, have always been ranking top four in Asia and even won tickets to join FIBA World Championships for three times at 1986, 1994 and 2002.
Pro basketball in Taiwan
With the huge crowd of hoop-loving fans behind, Taiwan has also tried to set up its own professional league.
In 1994, Taiwan's Chinese Basketball Alliance was founded with a four-team-league. At its heydays, the league attracted around 2,200 fans per game, a relatively great number considering the largest capacity of a stadium is around 3,000. But the number continues to drop annually and the CBA ultimately closed down in 2,000 after a dispute on broadcasting right fees and let to TV network refusing to broadcast the league’s games anymore.
But there are far more complex reasons behind the fall of CBA. As one of the Taiwan’s all-time best hoop players Cheng Chih-lung (鄭志龍) who was dubbed by Asian Basketball Confederation as Asian's best all-around player in 1998, had once said, “the league has failed to create its own unique characteristics.”
"The reason why people buy tickets to the game is they wanted to see native players who shared the same collective memories with them, to make three-pointers and to block shouts on the court, even though they knew these players were not even close to the NBA’s,” Cheng noted.
However, the league put much more focus on hiring foreign players which led to fewer minutes for local players and ultimately, no fans willing to pay to see what they can see in the NBA games.
After a long wait of three years when hoop games in the island remain in amateur mode, a semi-professional Super Basketball League, was founded under the government support in 2003. The league includes a men’s league of seven teams and a women’s league of four teams, the WSBL and now runs to its seventh year.
The SBL, however, is also facing many similar problems as its predecessor CBA was once faced with.
Yet the biggest problem for the league probably lies in its referee qualities as many times team head coaches had been questioning referees’ reputations.
It is not uncommon to see a team threatened to leave the game in midway to protest a call.
Ahead of the opening of its latest 2010 season, the SBL again was faced with a new challenge. A total of five Taiwanese players were signed by Chinese pro league teams in the off-season, including two of the biggest names in Taiwan hoops, star forward Chen Hsin-an (陳信安) and former Taiwan Beer forward Lin “the Beast” Chih-chieh. (林志傑)
This new exodus of Taiwanese players to China appears inevitable since the Chinese are offering big money to lure local talent.
Some observers are worried that the departure of players will hurt Taiwan’s basketball environment.
To response, the SBL has decided to allow more foreign players in to fill the starless void, allowing all seven teams to hire import players this year to improve competition.
However, the star-less league was apparently losing its attraction to local fans, the average spectator turnout of the SBL this season was a sparse of around 1,000 per game, which is even fewer than the worse days of the CBA.
But anyhow, with the huge basketball populations in Taiwan and the prosperous of the sport in the island, Taiwan continues to produce some of the best players in Asia and even in the world especially on guard and forward positions.
One of the most well-known Taiwanese players is the aforementioned Chen. Dubbed as the Taiwan Airman, the 1.94-meter-tall (6'3") forward has startled fans with his outstanding jumping ability and sturdy build ever since his high school days. His most celebrated play was an impressive in-your-face slam dunk under the defense of China's 2.29-meter-tall 7'3"giant Yao Ming, who later joined the NBA's Houston Rockets back in 2000 in a Taiwan-China national team match-up.
Chen is also the closest Taiwanese has ever come to challenge in the NBA.
In 2002, Chen was invited to participate in a pre-season training camp hosted by the Sacramento Kings, although he failed to make the cut. The next year, he tried out for the Denver Nuggets' summer league team, but eventually joined the American Basketball Association's Long Beach Jam in 2004, appearing in 12 games with an 8.8-point average and over 50 percent in three-pointers. Chen came home because of his chronic knee injury and played for the Yulon Dinos since 2003, earning the playoff season's MVP honor of that year, along with the scoring title and being selected to the all-star team.
This year, he moved challenge the Chinese CBA.
Lin, “the Beast” Chih-chieh, 192 centimeters, 6'2" and 204 centimeters (6'8") Garrett Tien (田壘) are another two biggest names in Taiwan, both won international recognition as Lin joined the Chinese CBA and left with an average of 11 points, 4 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game in 2010 season, while Tien was also invited to the Kings summer training camp in 2003.
These all-around performances made by local talents in foreign lands show the world that Taiwan is more than a factory for producing best baseball players, but also a treasure-house for hoop players in Asian and in the world as a whole.