When the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks play tonight at Air Canada Centre, the action will be described by a very special announcer.
Weiping Zhang will handle the play-by-play of the game which is being carried across Canada in Mandarin on OMNI.
Mr. Zhang was a member of the Chinese Men’s team from 1973-1981 and a former national team coach.
His fame in China seems limitless. Zhang’s exhortations are printed on t-shirts and he has 1.5 million followers on weibo http://t.qq.com/ a Chinese version of Twitter.
We sent raptors.com writer Mike Ulmer to find out why the world’s most populous country loves basketball.
Raptors.com: Tell me about how you acquired your love of basketball.
Weiping Zhang: I was born in Beijing. It’s a totally different system in China. We go professional first. Education came next. I was 14 when I became a professional and I played for the Beijing team and the national team. I retired when I was 30 and 31. Then I went to college.
Raptors.com: What moment stood out in your mind as a player?
Zhang: Coming to Toronto in 1974. It was the first time the Chinese National Team visited Canada. We had both the men and the women’s teams. I was here. So was Yao Ming’s Mom. We visited Niagara Falls. Everything was beautiful.
Raptors.com: You were a power forward. You are about six-four. Did that make you a big or a small forward in the 1970s?
Zhang: My opponents were usually six-foot-seven, six-eight, sometimes seven-footers. At that time a seven- footer was totally different. Now the seven-footers are athletic and agile. At that time they were slow so I could survive at my size.
Raptors.com: What was it about the game that attracted you?
Zhang: In China, I’m tall. People said ‘you should play basketball, blah-blah-blah.’ My Mom wanted me to go to college but I said ‘I will try basketball.’
Raptors.com: How big is basketball in China?
Zhang: Huge. The Chinese people love basketball.
Zhang: I don’t know. I think it’s been the first sport in China for many, many years.
Raptors.com: But it’s a game that favors big people?
Zhang: I heard, my coach told me that a Chinese guy invented the jump shot, many years ago.
Raptors.com: Do you think the game is popular because there has to be so much co-operation and teamwork?
Zhang: Yes. Through basketball you can learn many qualities for your life like teamwork, co-operation, sharing, sacrifice. Right now the people, especially young kids, they don’t have that quality. Through basketball you can learn those things and when you go into society you have an advantage.
Raptors.com: So people look at basketball as a way of bringing back traditional Chinese values?
Raptors.com: Do you see more Chinese players coming to the NBA?
Zhang: We have 1.3 billion people. We have players but we need coaching, teaching. That is our big concern.
Raptors.com: How important was it for the sport to have Jeremy Lin come into the game after Yao Ming retired?
Zhang: It saved the NBA internationally and it was great for reporters like you and me. He is a firestorm. He came from nowhere and he worked hard and suddenly…boom. The other important thing is that for sports there is no political side. You can be from mainland China or Taiwan or from Hong Kong, we may have different political ideas but for sport, for basketball, for Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin, we all think the same thing.
Raptors.com: Announcers usually have a trademark phrase. Do you have a catch phrase?
Zhang: People quote what I say on t-shirts. They put ‘Spacing’ or ‘Inside Out’ or ‘Move Ball’ or something like that.’