China’s streetball hero plays his way – Eduardo Baptista
On a mid-September afternoon, Wu You (吴悠) a.k.a. MoreFree, one of China’s most notorious basketball icons, was getting beaten badly. Despite the giant posters foregrounding the court and cameras filming Wu’s every move, this was only an informal exhibition game; Wu’s teammates included his childhood friends and their relatives, many of whom hadn’t exercised in months, let alone play a competitive game. As his team, down 20 points against a well-drilled team from the PLA National Defense University, called yet another timeout,Wu sat down on the bench, staring into space as everyone else chattered over tactics. Next to him, two of his septuagenarian teammates lit cigarettes, leaning back languidly and taking long drags. His team short on manpower, Wu tried to put them on his back for the final quarter, but to no avail – they lose by 30.
In China, the name “Wu You” has long been synonymous with “streetball,” or jieqiu (街球). The naughty younger brother of association basketball, streetball originated in the outdoor courts of America’s inner cities. The objective is not so much to outscore your opponent but to out-humiliate him, whether “breaking their ankles,” where a change of direction sends a defender flying to the ground, or inflicting a brutal “posterizer,” a dunk that rams the defender’s body backwards. At NBA games, spectators for the most part cheer and clap for their teams; streetball crowds are much less civilized, screaming in excitement whenever a player is embarrassed, even running onto the court.
Unlike the Chinese Basketball Association, Chinese streetball lacks administrative bodies, headquarters, or any kind of government support. Nevertheless, Wu You is its undisputed ambassador. His status as a popular hero of Chinese basketball drew the attention of current CBA president and greatest basketball player in Chinese history, Yao Ming. After attending one of Wu’s events in 2016 along with NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, Yao has kept an eye on the undersized influencer, eventually deciding to invite Wu to attend the annual meeting of CBA leaders in 2018. The mere fact that Wu sat alongside the leaders of Chinese basketball is a testimony to a life’s work in service to the sport.
For the past 15 years, the Beijing native has dedicated his heart and soul to bringing basketball to the people, organizing high-intensity streetball tournaments that deliberately stray from the format of a professional league match. The tickets aren’t overpriced. The spectators spill onto the four lines of an already smaller-than-average court, forcing the players to battle at even closer quarters; games are short and snappy, with a high turnover of players, many of them selected from the audience; either Wu or some other smooth-tongue friend of his acts as emcee, riling up the crowd and providing comic relief when necessary; fouling, physical play, and trash-talking are all implicitly endorsed. Throughout the year, Wu’s tournaments tour the nation, but Sunset Dongdan, a weekend tournament held between May and July in east Beijing’s Dandong Courts, is indisputably the best, often featuring guest appearances from NBA stars curious about China’s basketball culture.
Wu’s passion for basketball sprang from a burning desire for revenge. He hated basketball as a small child, and couldn’t understand why his older cousins preferred to watch what his younger self thought were merely “black men jumping up and down.” Whenever they played outdoors, his cousins would blast Michael Jackson from a boombox, scaring little Wu away. But once he got tired of his older cousins bullying him for being short, basketball became a way to let people know not to mess with him.
“Like most other kids at the time, I was into wuxia fiction, especially the narrative where the bullied character goes into the mountains, trains in seclusion and makes a glorious return, stunning everyone with his newly acquired skills,” Wu recalls.
“That was how I approached basketball: when naptime came in primary school, I would sneak out to practice; when my cousins went out to play, I would secretly follow, watching them from a distance and studying the good players.”
After two years of practice, his cousins noticed that Wu had learned how to play. Wu earned their respect, and became known around school for being the one who refused to follow convention and play football (soccer).
Having become a consummate student of the game by 14, Wu searched incessantly for a blueprint to become a better hooper. Previous attempts at increasing his vertical jump had ended badly; once, after doing 300 squats in one go, Wu could barely walk, propping himself on a friend’s shoulder to get around school the next day. It was amid this search when, on a stuffy summer evening in 2001, Wu You stumbled on streetball.
“Unlike basketball, streetball was love at first sight. When I first saw Nike’s ‘Hip Hoop’ TV commercial in 2001, it was like a whole new world had opened up before my eyes; they were doing all these crazy tricks, it was surreal,” said Wu, who was 16 at the time.
Although Wu didn’t know it then, the “Hip Hoop” ad was part of Nike’s strategy to connect basketball to hip-hop music on a global scale. NBA players danced to the rhythmic squeaking of their sneakers and the beat of their bouncing balls. Wu glued himself to the screen every day at 6 p.m., meticulously studying all the moves in the fast-paced, two-minute ad; one day he learned the first three seconds, the next day another three seconds. That winter, Wu made his first appearance on television, winning a basketball-spinning competition on Beijing TV’s Sports Channel. As part of the victory celebration, the producers let Wu perform a streetball sequence for the crowd that was a carbon copy of the “Hip Hoop” Nike ad he had studied during the summer.
“To most of the audience, my performance represented their first encounter with streetball itself, let alone a Chinese streetballer,” observed Wu, who along with minor celebrity status also earned a laptop, still considered a rare gadget at the time.
Wu’s privileged access to the internet allowed him to stay at the forefront of developments in an increasingly globalized basketball culture. Right before 2002, Wu discovered AND1’s famous streetball mixtapes. A now-defunct shoe brand, AND1 had been spreading streetball around the US since 1999 by organizing nationwide tours. Wu found the lax enforcement of basketball rules and playful nature of streetball even more alluring than the “Hip Hoop” ad. Armed with hours of footage that he had downloaded, Wu entered 2002 with a new sense of purpose, adhering to a strict training regime every day.
The Michael Jackson tunes that had frightened him as a child now became part of his new identity; MoreFree, his streetball name, is a transliteration of how most Chinese pronounced his favorite MJ song at the time, ‘Morphine.’ But it also refers to how Wu experienced basketball: liberating, addictive, a balm for the gaokao-induced stress that plagues all high school seniors in China.
His second appearance on TV in 2003 was a breakthrough moment. Wu was selected to be part of a seven-man basketball team that would face a number of professional basketballers on a show called The Road to Gold (金牌之路). As the show’s only representative of Chinese “streetball,” Wu stood out from the rest of his teammates.
“I was much more outspoken than my peers, so the crowd took a liking to me; there were also a lot of people who cursed me out,” Wu recalls. Participating in the nationally-televised show allowed him to avoid having his future decided by the gaokao, as he was recruited by Beijing Sports University.
Buoyed by his fame, Wu set himself an ambitious goal before starting university: to become China’s ‘Skip 2 My Lou,’ the nickname of the first and only streetballer-turned-NBA professional, Rafer Alston. But Wu’s four years in university were a wake-up call. Still short of stature, Wu found himself out of his depth, matched up against former professional players who had taken leave to pursue a university degree. Even after he closed the gap by training with a professional basketball team, in his fourth and final year, he was still passed over at team tryouts (he’d been recruited to the university itself but not to a university team).
“During the early 2000s, many Chinese players and coaches misinterpreted streetball,” Wu recalls. “They’d profile me as undisciplined, a showboat with no fundamentals.”
After graduation, a few teams allowed him to join their preseason squads, but he was always cut before the start of the season. With no professional contract on the horizon, Wu decided it was time he returned to his streetball roots.
The first tournament Wu organized was in 2008, at a time when the nascent Chinese streetball movement was facing premature extinction. AND1 was in dire financial straits and unable to organize streetball tours in the US, let alone around the world; and the upcoming Beijing Summer Olympics had drawn Nike sponsorships away from amateur tournaments. With the world’s best basketball coming to their doorstep, Chinese basketball fans would much rather watch NBA legend Yao Ming lead China to victory against European powerhouses than a bunch of scrawny amateurs hacking each other.
More importantly, the first crop of streetballers, like their leader Wu You, were in their early twenties. Everyone had dropped streetball to find a stable job – everyone except Wu You, that is.
“The way I saw it, finding steady work would mean renouncing my dream of becoming a professional basketball player,” said MoreFree, whose parents were adamant he follow in his peers’ footsteps and settle down.
Instead he decided to organize the biggest streetball tournament ever seen in China, a last rallying cry to revive the grassroots movement. Wu knew that if there was a tournament, then streetballers around China could have a goal to work toward, a reason to keep training amid all the pressures of adulthood. Announcing this bold decision to his parents, he appeased them by promising he would consider finding a job should the tournament flop.
Without financial support from any brand, Wu You emptied his savings account – around 900 USD – all money he had earned through TV appearances. He skipped meals for two weeks as he went running around Beijing, sticking up hundreds of posters at as many outdoor basketball courts as he could find. A few close friends lent a helping hand, secretly distributing fliers in the clothes shop where they worked. Weibo didn’t exist at the time, but Wu and his friends spammed all the relevant blogs and started threads on Baidu Tieba, the largest online forum in China.
“We were all hungry to organize a good event. Friends from around the country came to Beijing just to help out,” Wu recalls.
The day of the tournament would prove to be the single most important day in the life of MoreFree the streetballer.
“I’ll never forget that day, June 21, 2008. It had been hailing for two days straight before, which meant cancellation was likely – we didn’t have money to rent an indoor court. The evening of the 20th, it was still hailing, and I went to bed praying that a higher power would come to my aid. The next day, I opened the curtains to a glorious sun. I almost cried for joy,” said Wu.
From then on, everything went Wu’s way. The on-the-ground and online advertising paid off, as thousands flocked to see the tournament.
“What’s crazy is that, as soon as the event was over, the hailstorm started up again,” recalls Wu, who didn’t sleep the following three days as he and his friends put together a DVD “mixtape” of the tournament, which they then sent to big brands like Nike, which was so impressed it offered to cover all the costs next year.
That day was one of the most important in my life. It left me a lasting lesson: the moment you try to do something for a movement or for others, the whole world colludes to help you succeed.”
Over the years, Wu’s tournaments have increased in frequency and geographic range. Outside of the Sunset Dongdan season, the Beijing native has taken high-entertainment streetball to dozens of cities around China. This has led to the proliferation of streetball crews who compete for nothing but bragging rights, just like in Wu’s high school years. Collaborating with Adidas, Wu has for the past three years organized tournaments that allow these different teams to ball for their city, with no winning prize except a pair of Nike shoes. This is still amateur basketball, but the opportunity to train with Wu and compete in high-pressure matches is more than enough to attract thousands of hopefuls to tryouts.
While streetball has started to expand all over China, Wu’s incessant drive to become a better player has led him outside the country. In the same way Wu discovered US streetball through TV, he also discovered America’s culture of elite basketball training – namely, YouTube celebrity and basketball coach Devin Williams, creator of a documentary series called TEN000 Hours that caught the attention of Chinese basketball fans for featuring two Chinese-American players in the first three episodes. Starting from 2014, both Wu and Williams have shuttled between the US and China, exploring each other’s hometowns through the lens of basketball.
Despite his contributions as a bridge-builder for Chinese amateur basketball, Wu’s critics outnumber his fans. For starters, there are several viral videos of Wu challenging NBA players one-on-one, and getting beaten badly, in front of stadiums full of fans. Secondly, many Chinese basketball fans see Wu as a proponent of “dirty play.” In a culture where modesty is put on a pedestal, many see Wu’s rebellious swagger as a sign that fame has gotten to his head. Online essays have even circulated the rumor that Wu’s basketball-centric lifestyle is only possible because he is a fu’erdai, the spoiled son of a rich family.
“In China, people seem to spite the underdog and worship the strong,” observed Wu. Even though his father and grandfather were high-ranking officers in the PLA, Wu’s family was squarely middle class.
“In the States, I think it’s the opposite; over there, people would probably praise how someone of my height was willing to take on NBA heavyweights. Where I see bravery, others see an opportunity for ridicule.”
In 2018, Wu kept a distinctly low profile, which led to rumors that the 33-year-old had retired. In reality, the streetball icon has resumed his chase to become China’s first Skip 2 My Lou.
“I know that in two, three years, my age will prevent me from getting into a professional team, which means this is my last chance to fulfill this dream,” says Wu.
Wu’s absence from TV appearances is particularly surprising given recent events in the world of Chinese basketball. Last August, Youku released Dunk of China, a TV show that pits China’s best amateur ballers against each other, under the guidance of four celebrity judges, pop music idols Jay Chow and Li Yifeng and basketball stars Jeremy Lin and Guo Ailun. Ten or 15 years ago, this might have been an opportunity Wu would take without thinking twice, but not now. The icon has long grown tired of stardom, and though he always welcomes fans who run up to him for a picture, such things are, in his words, “meaningless.”
“Right now, all I want is to play in new, hostile environments. I think I’m better than everyone on Dunk of China,” Wu quipped. “Why waste time filming that show when I can go to New York and get beaten by 30 playing against Americans?”
Why waste time on Dunk of China when I can go to New York and get beaten by 30 playing against Americans?”
Despite Wu’s status as a cultural icon, he feels no need to live the life of a celebrity. His training schedule is no different than it was a decade ago, the only difference being that outside the summer season, Wu’s only training partners in Beijing are his childhood friends.
“These guys are great,” Wu waves at three young men smoking outside the restaurant where we sat, “but they can’t help me like Devin can… I’m always saving money so I can get back to the States.”
Nowadays, the streetballer’s earnings largely come from ads he films for hip-hop clothing, sports brands, and any other company hoping to use Wu’s cornrows and rebellious look to lure young Chinese consumers. Wu himself doesn’t wear any of the expensive clothing in his ads. Kitted out in baggy NBA jerseys and shorts, he only splurges on training equipment, such as an electric massager specially designed to improve muscle recovery time.
“In China, people just look at results rather than the actual process of becoming a basketball player,” Wu observes. “Many people will look at videos of me doing high-intensity training and ask, ‘Why is he doing all that if he’s not going to play in the CBA?’ or, ‘How much money can one make training like that?’”
“These fans who are unwilling to invest their time and energy into basketball, something that is so common in the US, there is no point in me engaging with them. Our mindsets are not on the same level.”
Although Wu is no longer the only streetball celebrity, he believes that nobody in China, and only a few in the US, come close to his level of dedication.
“Fans watch documentaries made about us [Chinese] streetballers, be it as a group or individually,” Wu explains. “But no one sees what goes on after the cameras go off… while everyone goes off to check out the sights, I’m still on the court, working on my craft.”
Indeed, just as Dunk of China and a new generation of streetballers has started to take the spotlight off Wu, the fulfillment of his decade-long dream flew under the radar on Chinese social media.
On September 22, 2018, Wu signed a contract with the ASEAN Basketball League’s Zhuhai Warriors, becoming China’s first streetballer-turned-professional basketball player. ∎