Jon Campbell, BEIJING
Youngsters around the world play a variety of games in their local parks, abandoned lots, city and suburban streets, and driveways of their home towns. But the stereotypes are strong: American kids play baseball; Canadians prefer street hockey; in much of the rest of the world, they prefer soccer.
In Beijing's hutong and apartment complexes, badminton used to be the game of choice. But in recent months and years, badminton has been on the outs. Football fever should be in full force across the capital, with both Real Madrid and Manchester United heading to Beijing for friendly matches against Beijing Hyundai this month. But it's not. Instead, the alleyways and sidewalks are often crowded with kids bouncing basketballs.
The basketball invasion began as a clothing fad, pushed simultaneously by the hip hop music genre and a strong South Korean influence promoting the sporting style. Baseball caps worn backwards, warm-up suits, jerseys and baggy shorts - all emblazoned with National Basketball Association (NBA) team emblems - has long been de rigueur for local youngsters.
Then the fashion turned into a sporting mania. The kids that used to whack shuttlecocks now dribble basketballs on their way home from class. Street-ball games are popping up in and around centuries-old alleyways, often without the benefit of a hoop.
It would be easy to give all the credit to Yao Ming , star of the NBA's Houston Rockets. A film documenting the former Shanghai Shark's first year in American basketball - The Year of the Yao - has just reached Chinese theatres. But it is not easy to say if the film will catch on, particularly since it is a completely American take on a totally un-American man.
At any rate, Yao has surely had an effect on the growth of basketball in China. The NBA, where he has been a standout for the past three years, is surely drooling over Yao's appeal to the Chinese basketball audience, estimated at 270 million.
He just might be their next Michael Jordan. 'Be like Mike' was not only an advertising slogan for a drinks company, but the ambition of a generation of American youths. Imagine if all those 270 million Chinese basketball fans were to want to xiang Yao - resemble Yao.
But that seems unlikely. Even youngsters know that Yao was picked to be a basketballer before he turned 10, and that his parents were both pros. The next generation of Yaos do not have time to play in cramped alleyways, since they are training non-stop in the country's new sports arenas. But that doesn't stop the kids playing in the streets of the capital from dressing the part and sharing in the buzz of China's NBA limelight.