Loving the Spurs in China

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.

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Sweetest Celebration

Zhang Weiping is a 63-year-old rock star in China, an ever-smiling face and towering figure (6-foot-4) whose popularity stems not from music but media. Weiping covers basketball for CCTV. He is the voice of a sport played by 300 million Chinese, a color analyst revered by a viewers who wear t-shirts imprinted with his signature phrases.

One is “teamwork.” The word in China may be as old as the game itself, which was introduced to the country in the 1890s by YMCA missionaries who participated in some of the first peach basket games, The word has become a touchstone of Weiping’s commentary, a call that resonates in a nation of 1.3 billion people much like Marv Albert’s “Yes!”

The inspiration behind “teamwork” comes from the silver and black. “I always say the Spurs play basketball the right way, not the wrong way,” Weiping says from the AT&T Center, where he is covering the NBA Finals. “The people in China learn how to watch basketball and play basketball from the Spurs. I’m serious.”

Some call Weiping the Marv Albert of Chinese basketball, a voice that provides unique color and distinct flavor to a wildly popular sport. One difference: Weiping does not do play-by-play. Another: Albert did not play for or coach his national team.

Before Weiping became a media star, he was a basketball star, a slashing-dunking forward on the Chinese national team. He led China to multiple Asian championships in the 1970s and made a lasting impression at the 1978 FIBA world championships.

“I was a power forward,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe it. I was 6-4 playing against 7-footers. I averaged about 26 points.”

Did he rebound?

“Not really.”

He makes no apologies for his game. In FIBA world championship history, Weiping ranks third in career scoring average at 25.3, ahead of Oscar Schmidt (24.1), Dirk Nowitzki (23.6) and Yao Ming (22.9).

After retiring, Weiping coached the Chinese national team, which won gold at the 1987 FIBA Asian championship. He also coached the Beijing women’s basketball team and the Beijing youth basketball team. The pressure, which he never felt as a player, drove him out of coaching.

He organized exchange basketball programs between the U.S. and China. In the 1990s, he became a national broadcaster. Weiping was there when the Spurs won their first championship in 1999. He has covered every NBA Finals game in silver and black history.

Weiping became a fan of the organization, the culture, the team’s style of play. He marveled at Tim Duncan’s game, his footwork and dedication to fundamentals. Weiping’s wonder spilled into his commentary.

“At the beginning, the people said they were old school, boring,” Weiping says. “They just pass and pass. But then they got educated. They realized that basketball is a team game and they learned that from the Spurs.”

Shuangfu Li , 29, covers the NBA for Sina.com, the most popular website in China with an estimated three billion page views per day.

“The Spurs are very popular,” Li says from the AT&T Center . ”I’ll tell you a funny story. In China, we call Tim Duncan a rookie because he’s always energetic, he never gets old and he’s still dunking. I’ve been microblogging for Weibo, which is like Twitter, and I say, ‘Look at the Spurs rookie. He’s had more playoff appearances than 17 NBA franchises.’”

More people in China play or watch basketball than the entire population of the U.S., which is approaching 320 million. The passion is staggering. For the 2013-14 season, there have been 25 billion page views for NBA.com/China, the Sina NBA section and the NBA section for Tencent.com, China’s largest web portal.

In terms of popularity, Li says the Spurs rank among the top five NBA teams in China. Weiping attributes the Spurs’ large following, in part, to its international makeup.

“They’ve got players from (nine) different countries and territories,” Weiping says. “Everything is global right now and the Spurs are an example. They’ve got players from different cultures and countries speaking different languages. It’s amazing.”