The smash-hit variety show combined basketball with pop culture to lure millions into watching
As 2019 approaches, so does the usual array of lists and round-ups for the dwindling year. In the spirit of variety, The World of Chinese has endeavored to chronicle the countdowns that others don’t. Try elsewhere (or, indeed, everywhere) for your everyday 2018 listicles—here you will find the stories, characters and pratfalls that the rest of the English-language media has largely overlooked.
“A basketball variety show?” recalls Zhu Mingzhen, a 22-year old finalist in the first season of Dunk of China, a web-based reality series which aired on Youku.com between August 25 and November 1. “It sounded like a scam to me.”
The pairing of judges [and singers] Jay Chou and Li Yifeng, though, along with CBA star Guo Ai Lun and revered Taiwanese-American NBA player Jeremy Lin would earn Dunk of China an 8.4 rating on Douban for its first season. Zhu reckons Chou and Li’s participation “converted a lot of Chinese girls into basketball fans.”
Critics and viewers have praised the show for promoting “masculine qualities”, pandering to Chinese institutional condemnations of “girly men” or niangpao (娘炮), even though it featured appearances by niangpao singers Fan Chengcheng, brother of actress Fan Bingbing.
Dunk of China portrayed itself as a platform for talented non-professional hoopers to showcase their skills and become celebrities in their own right, much like Taiwan’s annual DV 33 competition (the three-on-three format has even been approved for the 2020 Olympics).
Youku producers realized that five-minute 1v1 and ten-minute 3v3 make for fast-paced and unpredictable play, ideal for a young audience with lower attention spans and perhaps less familiarity with the technicalities of the sport than seasoned CBA fans. The characteristic Dunk of China shot is a suspenseful slow-motion of a critical jump shot, cutting between Li or Chou’s slack-jawed expressions and the ball’s drawn-out trajectory.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception, though, Dunk is not China’s first basketball show. Wu You, or MoreFree, founder of Chinese streetball, earned fame in the early 2000s by participating in variety show Road to Gold, which aired on the now-defunct state-owned Education Channel 3. “I was the only contestant representing streetball; the other 30 or so contestants were university players,” Wu told TWOC.
Out of Dunk‘s 160 contestants, a handful are experienced streetballers; the rest are students; Beijing Central Conservatory opera student Gao Jiabo became a meme when he miraculously beat veteran Ping Chang Xin one on one, declaring his intention “to wreck all the basketball players that look down upon singers” (干掉所有看不起歌手的球员).
Some are stars of CUBA, China’s university basketball league, looking to catch the attention of CBA scouts for the upcoming draft. Zhu is one of these hopefuls, along with Most Valuable Player Award winner Zhang Ning; they constitute the dynamic duo that brought Peking University the national championship this year and last.
Thanks to Jay and Li’s legions of fans, the variety show has made basketball palatable to viewers previously uninterested in sports. Both Zhu and Zhang gained tens of thousands of new Weibo followers, while a staggering 1.2 billion views were registered across the 12-episode season.
The show is not without critics, however, including a fame-weary MoreFree. “Anyone who gets really famous from Dunk of China is going to get tired of it all, I promise,” he declares. “Taking pictures with fans, signing autographs—none of it will make you a better baller; quite the opposite actually.”