Why China’s Hottest Basketball League is in a Mountain Village

The Village Basketball League or ‘CunBA’ in a rural corner of Guizhou province has become a huge hit with sports fans

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Simon Frank
6:03 PM HKT, Mon October 16, 2023 2 mins read

If you want to catch the most exciting basketball games in China, you’ll need to look beyond Beijing and Shanghai’s massive stadiums — or even street side courts in those same cities. Instead, try thousands of kilometers to the southwest, in a tiny village in mountainous Guizhou province.

The village of Taipan has a population of only 1200, but has hosted basketball tournaments for decades, originally as part of harvest festival celebrations. Over the past few years, this so-called CunBA or Village Basketball Association (村 cūn meaning village in Mandarin), has attracted growing attention thanks to its gritty, passionate atmosphere and picturesque open-air stadium.

Why have basketball fans turned to a remote corner of one of the poorest parts of the country? Basketball is one of the most popular sports in China — the men’s national team is a respected enough regional powerhouse, the women’s team won silver at the last FIBA Women’s World Cup, and street ball tournaments like Beijing’s Sunset Dongdan attract a dedicated following. However, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), the top domestic league, has recently been hit with allegations of corruption and match fixing. There’s also currently a lack of a genuine NBA-playing homegrown superstar like Yao Ming.

So it’s no surprise that fans have embraced social media videos and livestreams of the no-frills, back-to-the-basics CunBA, staged in a jam-packed 20,000 capacity stadium framed by breathtaking views of green hills. Amateur teams from other villages around Guizhou face each other on the often rain-drenched court, offering a refreshing contrast to a sports culture that elsewhere in the country can be hyper-managed and professionalized.

The village league has transformed Taipan into a tourist destination. During the preliminary rounds of last summer’s tournament, an estimated 500,000 tourists passed through the village. Located in Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Taipan’s diverse ethnic minority culture serves as an additional attraction. Traditional Miao attire can often be spotted courtside, and folk dances are featured in pre-game shows.

Even American NBA stars are getting in on the action. When the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler travelled to China over the summer, fresh out of the NBA Finals, he was sure to make it to Taipan. Former NBA star and current CBA coach Stephon Marbury has also checked out the games, commenting that the CunBA provides a chance to discover new basketball talent in China.

Offering a positive story about a part of China that is often associated with poverty and underdevelopment, the CunBA’s fusion of Chinese culture and an American sport has attracted extensive coverage at home and abroad over the past year.

However, there’s also a risk that the ballooning popularity of the league might destroy its down-to-earth spirit and relative informality — precisely what made it exciting in the first place. As reported in state media, the Guizhou provincial government is promoting tours to Taipan, and there’s talk of growing village basketball leagues to span the entire country.

Whether CunBA can retain its homegrown charm as it becomes more formally organized and promoted remains to be seen. For the time being though, fans are still tuning in or traveling to CunBA games to experience Chinese basketball at its unvarnished best.

Header image: Haedi Yue

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